Paula L. Pedene, APR, Fellow PRSA, is having a difficult time trying to narrow down a low point during her tumultuous last few years working for the Veterans Administration.
“There were so many,” she says during a recent phone conversation. “The lowest part was when I realized I would probably never be able to go back to that job. I loved that job.”
Pedene was one of the first whistleblowers at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System (PVAHCS). Nearly four years later, she prevailed in her case against the organization.
PRSA named Pedene as its Public Relations Professional of the Year, which honors the person who served as an outstanding example of the best in public relations during the previous year. She received the award at the 2015 International Conference in Atlanta.
In 2010, in collaboration with Sam Foote, a PVAHCS doctor, Pedene disclosed mismanagement of fee basis funds and reported a hostile work environment to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).
Two years later, new leaders at the PVAHCS removed Pedene from her public affairs officer role, which she held for 20 years, for an alleged computer infraction. As a result, Pedene spent two years in the basement as a clerk in the VA library.
Meanwhile, she heard from veterans about long waits and delays at the hospital, and became aware of issues with the Electronic Wait List. She collaborated with Foote on her own time, offering PR advice and counsel.
In 2014, Pedene won a settlement in her whistleblower case against the VA with the help of her employee representative, Roger French.
Pedene has also faced other challenges during her life and career. In 1993, doctors diagnosed her with retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary eye disease that causes blindness. She has 10 degrees of vision in each eye, which is only one-tenth of what a person sees with his or her 90 degrees of vision.
A Navy veteran, Pedene has served as Chair of the PRSA Health Academy and on the PRSA Phoenix Chapter Board. Most recently, PRSA named her as Chair of the Western District, where she is a liaison to 11 PRSA Chapters with more than 2,000 members across five states.
During her career, Pedene has earned three Silver Anvil Awards, along with more than 80 other government and nongovernment awards. She also created two nonprofit organizations — the Veterans Medical Leadership Council and Honoring Arizona’s Veterans, where she volunteers her time as the Phoenix Veterans Day Parade Coordinator.
Here, Pedene, who now runs her own Phoenix-based agency, reflects on her challenging career and standing up for what she believes in.
What initially inspired you to take a stand at the VA in 2010?
We had a wonderful director who had been there for 13-14 years. We were a top-performing hospital. And then, we got this new director who tore everything to the ground, and it was all about him and not about the veterans. This put us on a downward spiral that the Phoenix VA has yet to recover from.
I saw our staff being hurt. I saw our patients being hurt. I had a choice. I mean, many people just left. Many people put their heads down. When Dr. Sam Foote called me the first time, I said, “Sam, I don’t know that I can help you because I’m the primary breadwinner for my family.”
Then the director did something. He liked to embarrass me in public, and he did it again and that was it. Sam called me again, he goes, “Are you sure you don’t want to help me?” And I just looked around the room after that, and I knew that we needed to do something.
What happened next?
For whatever reason, [the new leadership] didn’t want me in that job. They made my life miserable. I put up with it because I loved my job. I loved serving the patients. I loved serving the staff.
Then they trumped up a charge on me. I did something wrong. I logged my husband onto a computer system and I had him put pictures in a PowerPoint presentation that was to be shared publicly.
It was a violation of policy, so had they just handled it that way, everything would’ve moved on, but they made it seem like I was selling nuclear secrets.
After 20 years of excellent ratings, they took me out of my job for a minor infraction. They demoted me seven grades below my position and then they kept me there. My office was now in the basement.
What was the lowest point for you during this time?
There were so many low points — not getting to do the job I love, not being able to interact with the staff and patients like I used to, not being involved in the community. But the lowest part was when I realized that I would probably never be able to go back to that job. I loved that job.
How did you reconcile with that?
Faith. I did not handle the situation well — I didn’t. Many people told me, “Paula, you’re going to be fine.” At this point, I had two years before I was eligible to retire, so I had to look at it and say, “Do I stick with it or do I screw up my retirement for the future?” My representative, Roger French, said, “If you quit, they win.” He said, “You have got to remember that. They are just trying to make you miserable.”
And they did a very good job of that.
What role did PRSA play during this time?
The entire time, PRSA stood behind me. When the Phoenix Chapter heard what was happening to me, they couldn’t believe it. So I asked if I could be the liaison to the Western District, and they approved that — no questions asked. They based it on what they knew of my service to PRSA.
When I went to the Leadership Assembly in New York as Chapter chair-elect in 2013, PRSA Board Chair Mickey Nall, APR, Fellow PRSA, and the National [staff, leaders and volunteers] all said, “We’re pulling for you, Paula.”
PRSA has done a phenomenal job with ethics, and making that a focus and managing issues and adversity. So what the association teaches has been part of my colleagues’ lives. They were empathetic and were able to stand by me. And that was a beautiful thing.
What do you think you learned about yourself during this time?
To stand back and reflect more — I was so into the misery of it, I didn’t see the learning that was going on, how to better handle myself, how to be more engaged with my family. The VA made my job miserable for me to the point where I was working 80-hour weeks. My sons needed their mom.
The biggest thing was [that] my faith grew. I didn’t like what was happening to me. I prayed about it a lot. But it wasn’t until it was all over that I could look back and see that God had me where he needed me to be. He needed me in that basement. He needed me to find that information that I could help Dr. Foote with, because we had heard about the waits and delays from the patients in the library, but then I saw information that was being sent out to all staff, that was being sent to supervisors. It was just false and misleading information. That needed to stop, because it wasn’t matching up with what we were hearing from the patients.
It was also important for me to learn that it’s probably not best to have all your eggs in one basket, even though you might have a really good corporate job. You just never know [what might happen]. Networking with people from PRSA and serving in an ethical association is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
What advice do you have for people who may find themselves in a similar position?
If you can take a stand, then you need to do it — but you have to look at all the consequences. You have to ask yourself, “Do I really want to work for an organization like that?” Unfortunately, [leaving] tends to be the easier route.
I was in a situation where I couldn’t leave without losing my retirement. So it was kind of a forced situation for me. If you’re taking a hard stand, sometimes, you stand alone. You have to be willing to say: “Can I do that?” If, in your heart, you know that you’re doing the right thing, then that will get you through.
Your commitment to standing up for what you believe in has inspired many people.
I’m humbled. I’m happy to be what’s called a servant leader. That’s the best way to provide service.
I’m honored to be in that spot and help whoever I can. Having integrity and a servant’s heart and doing the right thing, as hard as it may be — that’s what we’re called to do. It’s often not just about doing the right thing; it’s about having good in place.
You have to fight some of the evil that occurs in the world. Sometimes, you have to take a stand; otherwise, it’s like the bully who keeps picking and never goes away.
Do you see a time when your life returns to normal?
My life will never be the same. My hope was to be the VA public affairs officer until I was 60 or 65 or until my eyesight kept me from doing that job anymore, because I loved that job. But that’s not now. That will never be.
My family was hurt by all of this, too. I don’t know if people realize how much your family takes on the burden like this, when it happens. I didn’t know this at the time, but my son actually wrote a letter to the president saying, “Could you please help the whistleblowers like my mom?” So it has been a challenge for all of us.
What’s the future like? I don’t know. I guess we’ll see what God has in store.