by Joe Zabel
Twenty-five of VISR's top staff were assembled in the executive conference room. Kathy stood at the front. An older man in a wheelchair turned to address the group.
'Our six-month search for a new publicity chief had a happy conclusion when we found the woman sitting next to me. Today we're going to hear from her about the roles and responsibilities of our new Reputation Office, and about her strategy for improving VISR's rather lackluster image. Folks, please welcome Kathy Swanson.'
The group clapped politely as Kathy walked over to the podium. She stood, smiling appreciatively as the applause died down.
She turned to the first speaker and bowed. 'Thank you, Dr. Vaughn.'
'As a non-profit agency,' said Kathy, 'VISR has a special relationship to the public. We're asking the public to fund our activities without an immediate, tangible return on their investment. Most organizations base their reputations on a physical product-- a car, a box of cereal, a record album; the public pays for the item, and can immediately judge its worth, and the organization's worth. In our case, however, there is no product, and the public has to judge us solely on how we present ourselves.
'As a non-profit, our reputation serves a critical purpose which we must aggressively promote. A commercial firm's reputation only attempts to say, 'We've done no harm-- leave us alone to sell our product, and let our product speak for itself.' But our reputation must say, 'Here is what we're doing, and our efforts are worthy of your support.'
The security guard Steve heard the commotion as soon as he stepped out of the building. He jogged around the building to find out where it was coming from, and encountered the group of protesters congregated in the front driveway.
The protesters were chanting 'RETURN TO THE FOLD!' and jabbing their sign at a driver entering the lot.
Steve assessed the situation and hurried back to the building.
'According to my reading,' said Kathy to the audience, 'basic sleep research has historically been underfunded. That's hard to understand, since sleep occupies a quarter to one-third of our entire lives! But I think the reason for this neglect is the public's perception.'
Kathy clicked the remote to bring up the first slide, a newspaper headline, 'RESEARCH SHOWS SLEEP LOSS LEADS TO ACCIDENTS.' Kathy commented, 'This article is a good example. It was based on one of our press releases. I'm sure it was completely accurate and well-intentioned; but let's try to understand how the public reacts. I did only a small survey, but the responses are revealing.'
Kathy read from a notepad. 'Business owners said that the article makes people more worried about using public transportation, and more suspicious of the quality of products. One said it added fuel to the fire of labor complaints about rotating shift duty.
'On the other hand, labor representatives said it would encourage businesses to use more automation and cut jobs; and for the Teamsters specifically it was perceived as a veiled attack on the long hours of road time their drivers put in.'
Kathy shrugged her shoulders. 'Obviously we're living in a busy society that would rather not be bothered with sleep.' She held up her beeper for the audience to see. 'Take these little devices, for instance. When one of these goes off in the middle of the night...'
The beeper sounded, 'VEEEPP!'
The audience laughed. 'That wasn't a setup!' assured Kathy. 'Let's see who... does anybody know what extension 9930 is?'
'That's Security,' someone from the audience said.
'Oh, then I better answer it,' said Kathy. Looking at Dr. Vaughn she asked, 'Do you mind?'
'No, go right ahead,' said Dr. Vaughn.
Kathy called on her cell phone while the audience talked among themselves. 'This is Kathy Swanson. Yes... could you hold, please?'
Kathy asked, 'Does that window face East?' 'Yes,' answered someone from the audience.
Kathy and several others crowded around the window. Below, they saw a circle of protesters.
'Does this window open?' asked Kathy. One of the others worked the knob to angle the window out slightly. The chant of the protesters, 'RETURN TO THE FOLD,' could be heard clearly.
'Who are they? asked Kathy.
Dr. Yang looked out. 'Maybe they've got the wrong building,' he said. 'Maybe they think this is an abortion clinic!'
Kathy approached Dr. Vaughn, who sat in his wheelchair at the periphery of the spectators. 'Um... Security asked me if I wanted to go down and talk to the protesters.'
'It's up to you,' said Vaughn. 'How do you feel about it?'
'I think it's part of my job. They're angry about something. Maybe it's just a misunderstanding, like Dr. Yang said. In any case, I think they should be handled carefully.'
'Very well,' said Vaughn. 'You go ahead-- I'll wrap up this meeting.'
Kathy left the room.
Kathy walked over to the security guards, who were standing outside, twenty yards away from the circle of protesters.
'Have either of you tried to talk to them yet?'
'Nope,' said the older guard, Lasko. 'Policy dictates that if they aren't interfering with anybody, we leave them alone.'
'Well, I'm going to see what they want.'
'Have at it,' said Lasko.
Kathy headed over towards the protesters. Steve gave Lasko a dirty look. 'Don't look at me!' said Lasko. 'She asked us to call her!'
Kathy stood next to the line of protesters. There were about thirty of them, all carrying identical signs, marching in a circle on the driveway.
'Excuse me,' she said. 'Could I please ask you something?'
She looked into their faces, but none of them made eye-contact. They kept up their chanting, and perhaps made it even more emphatic to avoid addressing Kathy.
'Is anyone willing to talk to me?'
She was startled when a voice behind her asked, 'Can I help you?' She turned and saw a young blond-haired man.
'I'm with the Institute,' she said. 'I was trying to find out what this is all about.'
'It's free speech. We still have that right, don't we?'
'Of course,' said Kathy. 'But I'm afraid I don't understand this. What organization do you represent?'
'We're just concerned citizens. Is it necessary for us to be affiliated with some organization in order to express ourselves?'
'May I ask your name?'
'My name's Walter. But don't expect everybody here to give you their names and addresses-- they don't deserve to be hounded out of their homes and jobs, just because of what they believe.'
Kathy gestured helplessly at the signs. 'But what DO you believe? This 'return to the fold' slogan doesn't tell me anything!'
'It means something to those who know what it means,' said Walter. He stepped towards her, and she backed up, moving in the direction of the protesters. 'To understand, to walk a certain path, to understand that a call to 'return to the fold' is the beckoning of greater understanding...'
Backing up from Walter, Kathy stepped within the circle of the protesters. They surrounded her, chanting 'RETURN TO THE FOLD!' Walter continued, '...to understand, to comprehend, you need only to RETURN...'
Lasko said to Steve, 'Come on, lets get her the hell away from those lunatics!'
'You got it!' said Steve.
In the Reputation Office, Jen Marriott could be seen through the glass, busy typing on the word processor.
She looked up from her typing as another secretary entered. 'Jen, come and look at this-- we've got protesters outside the building!'
'Really?' Jen followed the other woman to another office, where several staff members congregated around an East-facing window.
''Return to the fold-- what's that supposed to mean?'
'All together now-- Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves...'
'What the hell is a sheave anyway?'
The assembled spectators laughed, and continued to speculate. None of them noticed the stunned expression on Jen Marriott's face as she leaned her forehead against the glass and stared down at the protesters.
And none of them noted her departure as she turned away from the window, pale and trembling, and walked shakily back to her desk. She sat down in front of her computer, and it was a full minute before she realized that the word document she'd been typing was no longer on the screen. Someone had been at her desk, and had exited out of the application.
Then she noticed a single sheet that was lying in the output tray of her printer. She picked it up.
On the sheet, typed in 30-point lettering, were the words 'RETURN TO THE FOLD!'
Jen crumpled the sheet up in clenched fists and flung it away from her. Then she bent over, carefully, picked it up from the floor and threw it in the wastebasket. She sat back in her chair, trembling and breathing heavy.
Then suddenly she sat up and looked around her, front and back. She peered into the surrounding glass, but saw nobody in the hallways-- only her own face reflected back at her from three sides.
She bowed her head and began mumbling to herself. She moved her hands, clasping them together and rubbing them, and lifting them to cup her ears. She repeated the motion several times, rubbing her hands together and cupping them over her ears.