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Wednesday, 02 November 2011 19:34

Once you cross the line, there’s no going back

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I followed the Janet Moore controversy from the beginning to its conclusion, which was all of three days. The former vice president of marketing for Mission Hospital made a mistake — a mistake that became very public — and paid a high price by losing a job she had held since 1991.

What seems obvious is that Moore was a casualty in a war that involves politics and medical market share, and that the war is far from over. She got caught in the crossfire.

This controversy, however, is also about cultural understanding and the words we use and knowing that what is acceptable in one conversation may be totally out of line in another place at another time. Moore crossed a line, and it cost her a career. In many instances, however, that line is not so clearly marked.

 

Wrangling over market share

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a short version. An audio recording of Moore speaking at a medical marketing conference earlier this year became fodder in the raging debate among healthcare institutions in Western North Carolina about Mission’s operating agreement with the state.

An excerpt from her comments at that conference was played at a public hearing on Thursday, Oct. 20. She countered that her comments about Mission’s market share were taken out of context. So Park Ridge Hospital officials, who released the earlier, edited version, put her entire conference presentation up on a website. She resigned on Friday, Oct. 21. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported the story on Saturday, Oct. 22.

Here’s what led to Moore’s resignation. At that conference, she told an anecdote about visiting a woman way up in a holler in Haywood County. Here’s how an article by Jon Ostendorff and John Boyle of the Asheville Citizen-Times on Oct. 22 described what she told that audience:

In the recording from the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Marketing Development conference in September, Moore told an anecdote about taking her elderly parents to a remote part of Haywood County.

Moore said they encountered a woman at her trailer “that had in front of it some used appliances and old cars, which is not an unusual sight in our part of the country.”

Moore’s father wanted to know what some pens were in the backyard. At this point, Moore mimicked the woman living there with her “best Haywood County accent,” saying the pens held fighting roosters and curly horned sheep.

“My father said, ‘Lady, what do you do with these things?’ And she said, ‘I sell them on the Internet,’” Moore said. “True story. So here you have this woman in a holler in Haywood County — clearly not investing in dental care, I can tell you — and she is doing e-business. With illegal animals, I might add.”

In the audio recording (which can be found at www.wncchoice.com/, go down to picture of Janet Moore and then click on “full presentation” button, and then go about 7 minutes and 20 seconds into the audio to get to the controversial part), Moore’s portrayal of the Haywood County’s accent and her reference to “not investing in dental” care are in poor taste. The ACT story quoted both the chairman of the Haywood County commissioners and the head of the Tourism Development Authority criticizing Moore’s use of stereotypes to describe county residents.

Moore made a mistake. In the audio, she follows up her negative comments by saying that you can’t stereotype rural mountain people, that these folks way back up in the woods are Internet savvy.

Unfortunately, in this case it became clear very quickly that the end did not justify the means.

 

It is what it is

But what about the comments? Anyone completely outraged about the description? Where do we draw the line when talking about groups of people?

First, of course, is the fact that Moore was in a position where she is paid to say the right things. If you’re a spokesperson or marketing person, a slip of the tongue can be expensive for the company you represent.

In my private life, seldom does a day go by that I don’t hear similar derogatory comments — jokes, by another name — about Yankees and Floridians, or the “left-coasters” in California. As a Southerner who has done a bit of traveling, I’m used to snide or trying-to-be-funny insults coming my way (still happens everyday in television and in movies) about being from the South and living in the Appalachians.

Is it OK for someone here to talk about rude, sarcastic New Yorkers with Yankee accents but not hillbillies with bad teeth and a mountain twang? I guess it’s all about context and timing. Moore’s remarks became a firebomb in the political battle about Mission’s market share. At a different meeting in a less contentious situation, they might have been shrugged off as just being in poor taste.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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