Taco Bell’s certified-vegetarian menu could win me back

Taco Bell logoSurely, you’ve heard the jokes – or made up your own.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: Because there was a Taco Bell on the other side.

Q: What do you do after placing an order at Taco Bell?
A: Look the cashier in the eyes and say, “We never had this conversation.”

Or maybe when you heard Taco Bell’s former slogan “Run for the border,” you snickered and said “Run for the bathroom.”

Now, the company once famous for its talking Chihuahua mascot has taken a decidedly serious move. On Thursday, it announced a certified vegetarian menu, thus laying a claim as the first quick-serve restaurant to do so.

Among Taco Bell’s announced veggie items are the Cantina Power Veggie Bowl and the 7-Layer Burrito. The 35 ingredients that constitute the 13 all-veggie items also are certified by the American Vegetarian Association, and some of those ingredients can be swapped out to make the meals vegan.

All items are available now at each of Taco Bell’s 6,000 restaurants nationwide.

This matters to me because Taco Bell once was my fast-food place of choice. Their bean burritos and tostadas were better than typical fast fare, were less expensive, and they fit nicely into my family’s veggie-only lifestyle.

“We get it – being a vegetarian can be tough when you go out to eat,” Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol said in Thursday’s news release.

But not long after the chain trotted out Gidget, the Chihuahua star of its “Yo quiero Taco Bell” promotion in the late 1990s, Taco Bell’s image went to the dogs.

In 2000, Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Yum! Brands Inc., was swept up in a Kraft Foods recall of taco shells made from genetically altered corn. In 2006 and 2007, it was accused of having unsafe sanitation practices after customers were sickened by E.coli contamination traced to lettuce and spinach in some meals.

And in 2011, the chain battled accusations that its seasoned beef was less than 40 percent real beef. (Not that I had a beef with their beef, but the controversy planted doubts in many consumers’ minds about the authenticity of other ingredients.)

By catering to a veggie crowd – and with an AVA-certified menu at that – Taco Bell may be taking additional steps toward putting all that bad news behind it, and maybe win me back as well.

If the Chihuahua trots back out, however, watch me trot away and never return.

Remember Mike Brown – and William and Angela

Melted wax still stains the street and sidewalk on Park Avenue at 11th Street in south St. Louis where two people were killed in a drive-by shooting in March. The stains appeared during a candlelight vigil for the victims two days after the shooting.

Melted wax still stains the street and sidewalk on Park Avenue at 11th Street in south St. Louis where two people were killed in a drive-by shooting in March. The stains appeared during a candlelight vigil for the victims two days after the shooting. (Photo by David Sheets)

In Ferguson, Mo., at least three permanent monuments recall Mike Brown.

In south St. Louis, there are only stains on the street where William Crume and Angela Wysinger perished.

In Ferguson, a brass plaque bearing Brown’s likeness and another plate shaped like a dove flank where he was shot dead in the street at Canfield Green apartments a year ago. On the spot where the teenager’s body lay in the summer sun for four hours is a rectangle of new asphalt; Brown’s family had the old asphalt scooped up as a keepsake.

In south St. Louis, dark, greasy stains from candle wax remain on the pavement and sidewalk at 11th Street and Park Avenue in the LaSalle Park neighborhood. There, near a concrete light pole, is where Crume and Wysinger died in March, killed in their car during a drive-by shooting. Two days afterward, about 70 people lit candles and stood in silence around a 17-foot wrap of balloons, ribbons and stuffed animals tied to the pole as a memorial to the couple.

Brown died in a confrontation with police officer Darrin Wilson. Brown was said to be unarmed. Wilson shot six times at Brown for reasons that protracted scrutiny has not made entirely clear.

Crume, 23, and Wysinger, 26, were killed as shooters from at least one passing vehicle fired multiple times into their car as it rolled east on Park Avenue. The shots also injured one of Wysinger’s three children – ages 2, 7 and 9 – riding in the back seat. Police say Crume and Wysinger were unarmed and probably knew their assailants.

Brown’s death triggered weeks of unrest in Ferguson and turned a magnifying glass on the way some municipal governments and police perform their duties. In many communities around the country, officers now wear cameras on their uniforms to account for their actions.

Little has happened in the wake of Crume’s and Wysinger’s deaths. The authorities presume the shooting was an act of retribution but still do not know who is responsible.

This week, millions of people worldwide remembered the events in Ferguson on the first anniversary of Brown’s death.

This week, hardly anyone will remember Crume and Wysinger.

But the young couple also deserve our attention, our remembrance, as much as Brown. His death, though tragic, raised awareness of pervasive social and legal imbalances in our government and the courts, and hammers home the need for changes in how the public and police deal with each other.

Crume and Whysinger died in an act of rage that hammers home the stark reminder of our obligation to be just and civil to one another. Lacking that, we risk leaving a legacy that amounts to little more than wax stains on sidewalks.

“You see a family shot up like this needlessly – the car was riddled with bullets. Just senseless,” Metropolitan Police Capt. Michael Sack told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in March. “It’s frustrating to have to deal with and try to find those responsible for it.”

6 tips for using Twitter like a professional

Twitter logoTwitter has been with us for almost a decade, yet we remain amazed at the things people tweet about. Personal beliefs. Private conversations. Elicit behavior. Groundless criticism. Uneducated perspective. Even public relations people, journalists and other professional communicators are guilty of excess and irresponsibility in their tweets.

Of course, plenty of twitterers in these fields set excellent examples. People such as Kenna Griffin, Callie Schweitzer and Sree Sreenivasan employ the platform in ways the rest of us should observe closely.

But what remains out of billions of tweets often resembles boorishness and self-aggrandizement, impugning and assuming, snobbery and effrontery.

When I was a newspaper reporter and editor, any attempt to garner attention through public channels was frowned upon and seen as ethically dubious, if not forbidden by company policy. Today, persistent and effusive social media use is considered essential to one’s employment, if for no other reason than to continually trumpet a media “brand.”

This deep knee bend to branding is ominous, thanks largely to such popular social media measuring sticks as Klout assigning overstated significance to digital socialization — a significance weighted in favor of quantity instead of quality. If we agree to hold up these sticks as accurate, then news reporting and corporate communications via social media will suffer the same dearth of quality.

Media consumers derive a certain assurance from a professional communicator’s detachment. That assurance peters out when, say, news providers shout above the loud partisan polemic drowning out rational thought — a polemic they help create.

The solution, short of avoiding social media altogether, is to exert greater care in separating personal from professional Twitter content. Despite claims that a personal touch demystifies media and makes information more consumable, personalization also blurs the line separating judgment from fact. When journalists and corporate communicators get too personal, they damage their own credibility and the credibility of their employers and put their professions at risk of being marginalized.

So, preserve your credibility and avoid marginalization in the workplace by following these six tips for better Twitter usage:

Separate personal from professional tweets — If this means creating separate Twitter accounts, then do it. At the same time, refrain from using the company logo or any derivative as a personal avatar.

Exercise care with criticism — Do you love Danielle Steel’s latest novel? Do you hate the plot twist in “Game of Thrones”? Fine, but avoid posting those opinions unless they are relevant to the job. Opinions water down the objectivity that professional communicators need for peak performance.

Avoid discussing company matters — If discord exists between management and staff in the workplace, or personnel matters prove irksome, then venting discontent via veiled insults on social media will undermine others’ faith in you and could prove actionable in a court of law. Similarly, honesty and accountability regarding one’s own errors denote respectability.

Rein in the urge to be defensive — By their nature, news media and corporate communicators invite criticism. Some of that criticism can be mean-spirited and vindictive. Avoid driving a conversation further down the same dark road. As humorist Mark Twain once said, “Never argue with stupid people; they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

Resist posting vacation and food photos — It’s always good to get away from it all, but avoid dragging readers and viewers too far along with you. That beach picture showing Diamond Head in the background, while pretty, smacks of braggadocio, and may even suggest a laxity about work — especially if the picture puts you in one place while the calendar says you should be somewhere else. Food photos, on the other hand, pose a problem rooted in esthetics: Food never looks as good in social media as it does sitting on the plate in front of us.

Avoid making sales pitches — Ensure personal and business brand integrity by not distributing or re-tweeting sales pitches or links to special deals. Leave that up to the sales people at work who are supposed to market those products.

The last time I saw my mother

Me and my mother, circa 1964

Me and my mother, circa 1964.

My mother’s last words to me weren’t words, but a wan smile and wave.

She was propped upright in bed by an armada of fluffy pillows tucked inside starched white slipcases. Her blue, flannel nightgown was a hand-me-down from her own mother; she loved it so. It was as crisp as the slipcases.

The hospice workers changed her bed sheets every four hours to keep her comfortable because my mother loved the smell and feel of laundered linen. She looked like a used toy nestled in a new package.

I had flown home to sit by her bedside when she was awake and tidy up her affairs when she wasn’t, which was often. A few days earlier, in a long and tense phone call with my uncle, I had agreed with him that she would never leave the hospice, and that the clean sheets and pain medication were the only things left to offer.

“I know you’ve been busy,” my uncle said. “But maybe you should come see her as soon as you can.”

This was a frequent refrain. For months, my mother seemed on the edge of the abyss, then I would visit and she would pull back, just not far enough to get her out of hospice. I had mounted each trip to see her as if it were my last.

Something’s different this time, my uncle said. He was by my mother’s bedside two days earlier trying to engage her, trying to determine if she was still aware of the present amid her incomprehensible mumblings about the past. The conversation was, as usual, one-sided, until my mother halted mid-mumble, looked at him and said with unusual clarity, “I’m never going to leave this place, am I?”

When I arrived straight from the airport, she was sleeping so deeply not even the hospice workers could rouse her. A desert breeze wafted through open windows to freshen her small room.

“She does that,” a hospice aide told me, shrugging. “One day, she’s awake and her appetite is good. Next day, she sleeps through everything and won’t eat. It’s getting harder to wake her when that happens.”

She slept through the first day of my four-day visit and the second. On the third, she was awake when I arrived in the morning. We talked – rather, she talked, and I tried to make sense of what she was saying. Much of it seemed to be about her upbringing in Utah and Hawaii, about her own uncles and aunts and cousins I never met, about events that occurred more than generation before I entered the world.

The whole time she talked, I was one of those uncles or cousins. She spoke as if I had been a witness to each event she recounted.

“I’m David, Mom,” I repeated several times that day. “I’m your son.”

At each, she would bunch her brow, look at me and say softly, “Oh.”

At each, a knot formed in my chest.

The fourth and final day of my visit started like the first two. My mother was deep asleep and stayed that way past noon. Attendants bathed her and changed her bedclothes, yet she did not stir. My time with her was trickling away. I looked around the room at the few belongings she had left – a framed watercolor that once hung in my grandmother’s house; pictures of my uncle’s children and a 20-year-old picture of me; a gray, stuffed cat that resembled her real cat, which she had to give up upon entering hospice. I bought the stuffed cat when she began spending more time in hospitals than at home.

At last, an hour before my flight was due to leave, she opened her eyes and stared at me. No words, just a long stare from eyes that were tired and dark and dull. I tried spurring conversation by recalling pieces of the broken stories she had strewn across her mind. I pointed to and described the watercolor, the family pictures, the cat.


Finally, I rose to leave and leaned over to kiss her forehead. Her skin was smooth and cool. Her white hair was pushed against the pillow. I pressed her knotty hand into mine.

“It’s time for me to go, Mom,” I whispered. “You take care of yourself. I’ll be back to visit very soon.”

I headed toward the door, and as I opened it to leave I turned around to wave goodbye. She had raised her hand slowly to wave back, grasping at the air as if reaching for a knob. The sagging corners of her mouth turned up and her lips formed a slight smile. For a moment, my mother’s eyes also appeared to brighten.

I have thought of that moment each Mother’s Day since. I probably will remember it each Mother’s Day hereafter, and I wish I had swept up and bundled as many better memories of her that I could summon.

But the smile and wave told me more than all she had tried to say in words. For in that instant, I believe she remembered who I was, why I was there, and what I meant to her.

And there were no words that could express those things any better.

In social media, patience is spelled with five W’s

The Five W'sIn a perfect world, our words shine like jewels the first time we write or say them.

The reality is, our words demand special consideration before displaying them in public.

For one thing, so many terms in English have multiple meanings; for another, so many readers own distinct perspectives and biases. Ask 10 people to read the same sentence, and they’re likely to offer 10 slightly different interpretations.

That’s why, in our electron-fast, social media age, extra seconds spent pondering our pedantry before tapping the Send button can prevent embarrassment and preserve credibility.

So, consider putting patience high on your list of obligations each time you write online. Armed with it, writers and editors are more likely to catch spelling errors, check or recheck facts, change tone, even adjust attitudes — particularly their own.

The trick, of course, is finding that patience. Hours spent banging out social media posts as fast as they come to mind can cultivate writing that’s reflexive, not reflective.

It may help to install social media speed bumps — a set of objectives that forces introspection. If you’re not sure where to start with that, employ journalism’s famous five W’s:

Who — Think first, “Who am I trying to reach?” Although social media networks permit users to put followers into groups, most users don’t do that. The result: their networks are a mishmash of friends, colleagues and acquaintances where one post intended for a particular group of followers insults or offends all the others. Craft posts with the broadest possible appeal, frame edgier posts with self-effacing humor or courtesy, and restrict the hardest commentary to direct messages.

What — Make sure the point of a post is clear and consistent with the facts. Go back through other people’s posts, check associated Web links and references to see whether those people are interpreting the information correctly. Make certain whether you’re eschewing or embracing conjecture. Only then can you safely answer the question, “What am I trying to say?”

When — Speed is a drug in social media; we assume that the faster we post, the more likely other people will think we’re reporting “news.” Blame this behavior in part on traditional media, which instilled the belief that “scoops” or “beats” were just as important as the information itself. In reality, no newspaper stopped printing and no TV station went dark from not having enough scoops. Today, the Web is rife with humor and shame over errors by news organizations that moved too fast to gather facts. Thus, the answer to “When should I post?” ought to be, “After I have all the facts.”

Where — The term “social media” is as broad as the horizon. It encompasses numerous networks, each having its own best practices and tolerances. Still, we believe Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others have the same audiences, the same reach. But there’s a saying: Facebook is for people you already know, Twitter is for people you want to know, and LinkedIn is for people you need to know. Learn the point and purpose of each social network, then you’ll be able to answer “Where should I post?”

Why — I’d like to think everything I say via social media is important. We all do. Nevertheless, each of us encounters users who think otherwise. That constituency dwindles with solid answers to “Why should I post?” Whereas flippant or rhetorical commentary only attracts more of the same, social engagement founded on research and reportage is shared and re-shared more widely.

(A version of this blog post originally appeared in The Freelance Journalist, a blog managed by the Society of Professional Journalists.)

‘It’s up to us to stop this’ : The shooting behind my backyard gate

Park Avenue Shooting Memorial

The memorial for two fatal shooting victims that grew to embrace a light pole on Park Avenue near downtown St. Louis started with a couple of teddy bears and a few flowers. (Photo courtesy of Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Bright, multicolored balloons twist and bob around a concrete light pole about 20 yards from my backyard gate. People of all ages took photos of the balloons even as children tied more onto the pole.

In the adjoining community park, a couple hundred people talked, laughed, cried and held each other during a memorial vigil Tuesday as they recalled what happened a few feet from that light pole 24 hours earlier.

A bullet-riddled Nissan carrying two adults and a 9-year-old girl had rolled to a halt with one of the adults already dead and another dying. The girl was wounded but would survive. Their ride ended after a 12-block shootout with the occupants of another car who authorities say were targeting the couple.

I had heard the yelling from bystanders outside my second-floor window before realizing what was wrong. I saw the car go by, followed briefly by four people sprinting after it on foot. By the time I made it downstairs and out the door to investigate, a handful of wailing, distraught people were already reaching into the car to pull out the victims.

Police arrived mere seconds later. A detective at the scene told me they were receiving 911 calls about the shooting before the car had reached a full stop. Once they turned the corner, they only had to follow the sounds of the wailing.

More people rushed to the scene on foot at almost the same rate as the police, who drove in aboard 17 patrol cars and immediately closed the street in both directions. Officers cordoned off a wide area that extended all the way to my gate hinges.

The police anticipated trouble. When large numbers of African Americans are involved, they assume as much and show up en masse. Ferguson – 12 miles northwest of here – is to blame for that. The victims in the car were African American. The detective said the suspects likely were African American, and the growing crowd was upset and almost exclusively African American.

But the tension that was anticipated never materialized, because there was no rage, only outrage and frustration. The police were there like the rest of the crowd, trying to understand what brought two young lives to such a violent end on a tree-lined residential street, probably at the hands of someone equally as young.

One officer bent down on one knee just outside the loop of yellow police tape to talk with a group of boys, none of whom appeared older than seven. All of them, including the officer, had the same stunned looks on their faces, because at what age does one truly understand how anything like this can happen?

To the other side of me, a woman walked past holding her head in her hands and saying to nobody in particular, “I’m never letting my girl out of the house now.”

Then screams pealed out from several of the 70 or so people watching across the street in the park. They just learned the other adult in the car had died at the hospital.

At that, the crowd started to dissipate, with the strong and resolute assisting the inconsolable. The armada of patrol cars dwindled to 12, to eight, to two. The car that held the victims was the last to go, on the back of a flatbed tow truck, beneath the pale glow of that now-landmark street light, the only odd thing at that point being the sight of a single officer standing in the road watching the cargo being loaded.

For me, the hardest part was seeing the pain in the faces of those who either knew the victims or knew that this kind of internecine violence was not about to end. They were worried for their children and their friends and family, and said as much out loud, over and over. The police would be no help; the solution had to come from within.

And so the vigil formed around 5 p.m. Tuesday and lasted well after sundown. About 200 people showed up. They brought flowers and balloons, and a couple brought barbecue kettles. Posters of the dead were pasted to the light pole. The wrap of balloons reached 12 feet in height. And yet, police passed by only infrequently because for this second gathering the people themselves were doing the policing – directing traffic and trying to keep order. I spoke briefly to a few of the people trickling in and out; they replied in broken voices about taking back their lives.

“It’s up to us to stop this. It’s up to us to stop this,” one woman muttered.

Another woman who looked as if dressed for church touched my arm gently and said, “Please, be careful.”

We should all follow that advice.

7 reasons why your company should hire a journalist

You should hire a journalistTwenty years ago, the market for journalism soared. Print circulation reached all-time highs, and newspaper owners were flush with cash. Ten years ago, cracks appeared in the media industry’s wings and profits began to plummet.

Today, major media firms, battling to stay aloft, are jettisoning newspaper holdings like old socks. Many of the seasoned journalists who gave these firms credibility were jettisoned long before that.

What a waste — and what an opportunity for American business.

Because more than ever, information is currency. Employees who can find information, analyze it, disseminate it, and do all of these things objectively, have far more value than those who merely copy and paste it. And journalists do much more than just gather information; they’re trained to explain why that information matters to you.

Experienced journalists provide a return on investment, and companies that recognize the value of people who can process information instead of just repeat it hold clear advantages in the marketplace.

So, when you’re searching for someone who can turn information into gold, consider these seven reasons why a journalist may be the best person for that job.

They’re good at research — There’s a joke that says the best place to hide a corpse is on the second page of a Google search. In their quest for accurate, timely information, journalists dig much deeper than the algorithms of a search engine or a social media platform can. They understand that data lie as well as inform. Only hard research and investigation reveal the distinction.

They value accuracy — The Delete key is not anyone’s friend or savior. It only removes what’s on the screen; it does not remove false or inaccurate information from either archival or human memory. Journalists understand that accuracy begets credibility, and correct information up front forms the foundation of sound business judgment.

They have institutional memory — Today’s college graduates have lived their lives enmeshed in the Web, but not all answers to life’s questions reside there. Journalists with 15 to 20 years’ experience remember digging for data by hand — sifting through dusty file cabinets and interviewing people in person. A lot of that information still isn’t online, yet these journalists recall it because, according to researchers, we tend to remember information that was difficult instead of easy to obtain.

They appreciate deadlines — When print media was dominant, journalists had only a few times each day to convey information. This forced them to focus, to plan, to be efficient. In today’s never-ending news cycle, every moment holds deadline potential, but having so many opportunities increases the likelihood of hesitation, delay, and a lack of appreciation for deadlines. Put another way, when every moment is special, then no moment is special. Journalists appreciate the value of a moment.

They are persistent — To borrow from tennis champion Billie Jean King, “Champions keep playing until they get it right.” Good, responsible journalism requires the same approach. Truth resides somewhere beneath the surface of an issue, and so to get at truth requires dodging or occasionally plowing through obstructions. A journalist who is able to carve out that path does so with razor-sharp intellect.

They are ethical — There are better paying jobs than journalism, but no journalist I know entered the profession for the money. They value the power of words and are imbued with an innate sense of justice, they cherish the watchdog role that comes with being a journalist, and they respect the profession and their employers by being accountable for their actions.

They have compassion — Besides showing accountability, good journalists respect their audiences. The information that journalists gather and disseminate is for the benefit of those audiences, not their own egos or their own brand, and serving those audiences demands powerful responsibility. With good information culled from reports and research, the public can make educated decisions. So, too, can employers.

Imagine how successful a business could be with proven, committed employees such as journalists on its payroll.