Smart Podcast, Trashy Books Podcast

390. RWA One Month Later, Part III: Jessie Edwards, Marketing and PR Manager, RWA

Welcome to part three of my four-episode series, RWA: One Month Later. Today, we’re hearing from RWA.

Jessie Edwards, Marketing and PR Manager for Romance Writers of America, joins me to answer questions about loss of trust, steps being taken to address member concerns, filling leadership positions, and what comes next for RWA, for the national conference, and for the membership.

Check your podcast feed tomorrow, February 3, for the other episodes in this series, including an episode with the officers of CIMRWA, and a conversation with RWA past president HelenKay Dimon. Tomorrow, February 3, you’ll hear from Courtney Milan.


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This podcast transcript was handcrafted with meticulous skill by Garlic Knitter. Many thanks.

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  1. 1
    library addict says:
    +2

    I’ve typed and deleted a few comments, but just have to say there is no way this magical DEI consultant they plan to hire—or any single person—can possibly fix RWA when this board won’t even admit they (a) have a huge problem with racism and (b) have done a terrible job of communicating with members this past month.

    Looking forward to Courtney’s episode tomorrow. And thanks to the officers of CIMRWA and HelenKay Dimon for the previous episodes.

  2. 2
    Arethusa says:
    +2

    I paused the interview. I’m at a loss after Sarah has, at this point, given Edwards 3 different opportunities to acknowledge THE issue and Edwards has found 3 different ways to ummm and uuuh around it. Just here looking for…? LOL. SIGH.

  3. 3
    Kaley says:
    +2

    I did my best to approach this interview with an open mind to hear RWA’s side (even though the “board” members were too cowardly to appear themselves and sent a PR person instead). Eight minutes into the interview, when Ms. Edwards gave a convoluted BS response to the question “Is there a problem with racism within RWA?” I started to lose hope. When Sarah asked the question again and the best she could say was that processes and procedures to address diversity issues needed to be better integrated within RWA, I knew all was lost.

    There wouldn’t be a need to create processes and procedures to address diversity issues if there wasn’t a problem with racism.

    I’m going to give Ms. Edwards the benefit of the doubt that this question was anticipated and she was under orders NOT to directly acknowledge racism within RWA, but this interview is basically more evidence that the current leadership is basically looking to maintain the status quo.

    While I agree that RWA *can* be better, it can’t even begin to improve without admitting the problem of racism within the organization. What a disgrace to the founder, Vivian Stephens. It looks like “burn it down” is going to be the only viable response to this travesty.

  4. 4
    Leigh Kramer says:
    +2

    Her inability to acknowledge RWA has a racism and bigotry problem made it hard for me to listen to anything else she had to say. If they can’t even acknowledge the problem, what the hell are they trying to fix?!

  5. 5
    Kris Jayne says:
    +2

    I can appreciate that someone from RWA is finally having a conversation and answering questions. However, I’ve worked with dozens of PR and comms people in my non-writing career. I’m stunned at the lack of crispness in answering obvious questions regarding the racism concerns facing the org. It’s more of the same puzzlingly poor crisis management we’ve seen in the last month. The way they miss the mark over and over baffles me to no end.

    The part between 8 minutes and 14 minutes is painful and makes me wonder what was done to prepare and practice coherent media talking points (let alone convey genuine strategy), which should be step 1. How she answers the repeated question at about 11 minutes should have been where her answer started.

    How hard is: “We’re a microcosm of the world. There’s racism in the world. There’s racism in RWA. However, our goal is to make sure that we are inclusive of everyone and make our org one that can, hopefully, be less racist than the larger community. Romance is a space where we can and should be leaders in inclusion–not only regarding race but for other marginalized groups. We have not been in the past, and we acknowledge that.” That would still not go far enough for me, but it would at least show acknowledgment. They should go on to say, “We are committed to making sure bigotry and bigots have no place in RWA. We are changing our processes to ensure we can eliminate systemic biases, and we are addressing our code of ethics to hold members as accountable as we do the organization as a whole.” Then, back it up with regular communications about what’s being done to meet that goal. I’m not holding my breath for that. I don’t know what they are afraid they would lose at this point. Or maybe I do.

    Also – down only 20 members is denying reality and (I suspect) not actually true. I know of three people who’ve left just from my local chapter. If just 10 chapters had that loss, that’s more than 20. And we know one chapter has folded. I’m suspicious. To say something that strikes the ear as so obviously disingenuous is problematic given the trust issues she says they have.

    Maybe they’ve picked up enough members to offset the gains (questionable), but also, they’ve extended the grace period on renewals, which likely bolsters their numbers in the short term. They are probably not counting recent lapses in that number until the end of February, so I’d like to know how many people are in that category. Many have announced their intention to let their memberships lapse. Some (like me) stayed just to vote concerning the fate of their local chapters. Maybe they’re painting a positive picture externally but have a greater sense of urgency behind the scenes, but the time to be cagey and put on a happy face is long gone.

    RWA is in trouble, and even in this interview, I get no sense of their understanding the membership crisis they are facing or the underlying problems. It sounds like they’re still in denial. To be given a final chance to say something, and to say “I believe in RWA,” is not a good wrapper. I would suggest they get much more honest and crisp around why the members should believe in RWA. If we don’t have faith in their leadership, their professions of hope are meaningless.

  6. 6
    JE says:
    +2

    Painful to hear. RWA, please get some leadership because communication and PR requires – something real to communicate

    Jessie Edwards, the truth you are struggling with is this: tolerance cannot tolerate intolerance. No dEI consultant will change that essential truth. If an organization is committed to equity, people unwilling to change will have to make a decision to go. Process is important but if leadership doesn’t understand the commitment, it’s just rearranging the deck chairs.

  7. 7
    Briana says:
    +2

    If I was a member – even just as a reader – this is really disheartening.

    She didn’t succeed in reassuring me that RWA is “committed” – no matter how much she likes that word to the values that I would hope it would uphold.

    She also never addressed that the Board is people who were appointed by the now-defunct short-lived president.

    The “who does RWA serve” quick answer was AWFUL. It needs to not be “our members” – it needs to be serious. And it didn’t sound like she was taking this seriously.

  8. 8
    +2

    A marketing and PR manager who dances around the issue of racism and bigotry within the RWA doesn’t bode well for the organization. *sigh*

  9. 9
    Claire Barrett says:
    +2

    Yeah. This was a very troubling interview. Although I’m sure Jessie is a very nice person, she didn’t sound prepared (or perhaps authorized) to say anything of substance.

    I had made the decision in November that I would join RWA at the end of December, as part of my goal to work towards becoming published. I held off on that after I saw Julia Quinn mention something on her Facebook page–my first inkling something was wrong, as I’m not very in touch with the romance community on social media.

    I went ahead and filled out my application, but didn’t pay the fee. I decided I’d wait the end of February, and I’m very glad I did. This interview made me realize the RWA is not a place for me (and Courtney Milan’s interview posted today further reinforces that decision). I have received a very nice personalized message from RWA encouraging me to finish my application. I’m not sure if that’s standard or a result of a hemorrhage in membership, but it made me chuckle a little when Jessie mentioned the 20 lost members fact.

    I’m not sure where exactly to go from here, as I’d kind of been relying on joining my local RWA chapter to network and learn from other authors in the industry. But it’s better to have no path than to be part of a group so opposed to my own values.

  10. 10
    Ren Benton says:
    +2

    Every time someone who collects a paycheck from RWA opens-mouth-inserts-foot, it’s clear they serve the entity that signs those checks rather than the membership. Unpaid members are passionately talking about values and integrity. Paid staff are covering their employer’s ass, as if footage of that ass scooting across the carpet hasn’t already gone viral. That may be their job description, but at some point, you’d think one of them would recognize the lies, obfuscation, and denial are hammering nails in the coffin rather than salvaging anything.

  11. 11
    Ava Jarvis says:
    +2

    RWANYC has sent a letter to RWA about the points brought up in this interview. I recommend reading it if your vision clouded blood red while listening to this episode, and you either had to stop early to save your health or you managed to finish and want to see positive action being taken against whatever RWA thought tossing their non-crisis-trained PR rep into the deep end would get them.

    Link: https://twitter.com/ladrianaherrera/status/1224378699119841281?s=20

    To preserve my faith in humanity I’m going to assume Edwards was just starting to get crossfaded during the interview and that was why it made no sense even coming from a non-crisis PR person.

  12. 12
    +2

    This was an extremely disappointing interview. I know that Jessie was just doing her job, but clearly she was unprepared to talk about this situation and on not one, not two, but 3 occasions Sarah asked her if there’s a racism and bigotry issue at RWA and the spin was insulting. It’s not just a policy issue when there are members posing racist and bigoted crap on the online forums. Not just a policy issue when there’s a lack of empathy for authors of colors putting in complaints that don’t see the light of day. She didn’t want to put a big “swath” across the whole of the membership, but you aren’t doing that if you just tell the truth.
    There’s nothing wrong with saying: “Yes, RWA DOES have a racism and bigotry problem as many companies and trade orgs are discovering, but we want to recognize it and work to remove those who are not contributing to a welcoming and inclusive environment. And we have a plan to do so. Here it is.”

    Her excuses echo to the same problem around white people discussing race. It’s always treated as “binary”: Either you’re a racist and a sheet-wearing, cross-burning bigot, or you’re not racist at all. It doesn’t work that way. PLEASE understand, racism is pervasive and there are many ways it can manifest, with or without you wearing a sheet. To admit RWA has a racism and bigotry problem doesn’t mean you’re saying all members, but it’s just as ridiculous to say that NONE of the members are racist.

    Everything seems to be hanging on hold until the DEI Consultant is brought on board. I gotta say, I’m extremely concerned about the scope of this person’s work on this. It is massive and I can’t imagine any of the stuff Jessie mentioned, especially the consultant to help create programming for the RWA conference in JULY will be done. They are putting the appointment of the President on hold until this person arrives. What is the prioritized list of objectives they want from this individual? Who’s vetting these consultant candidates? I’m unsure if anyone on the staff or board is qualified to do so, especially since there’s no trust or reassurance they will be transparent around the qualifications the BoD is looking for. And on the flip note, I gotta wonder if a consultant would agree to such a broad scope of duties for an undisclosed amount of time. Realistically, it will take RWA a couple of years to fully rebuild the relationships, the leadership at the board and ultimately the trust of its members. The board keeps hollering about a DEI Consultant as if they will solve all their problems, but the problem still starts at the top. And as the DEI Proposed plan that was sent to the board last week suggested: you need a Diversity Officer on the board as well as the Inclusion committee and the consultant. Stop putting all this on one person and think holistically. People, Policy, Process.

    And no shade on Jessie, but I’m personally very tired and frustrated of DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) being treated like some “solution in a buzzword”. I bet my house that if you were to ask these folks how would you define each of those terms and what it means to your company or org, they would totally bomb it. To my chagrin, it’s quickly becoming a word people use to sound cool at work, like “synergy” and “rock star” Just…please stop it.

    Final note: The first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one.

    So, it looks like I’m still waiting on RWA to take that 1st step.

  13. 13
    Ava Jarvis says:
    +2

    Kharma Kelley’s very good points have made me realize a thing….

    1. How qualified of a DEI consultant are they going to be able to get, at this point? I… don’t know of anybody who wants to work for an org that has been very visible in national newspapers doing a Bad Diversity, knowing that org has a history of throwing people under the bus. Unless they wanted their consulting business to die in infamy.

    2. Assuming such a DEI consultant exists, how much would they be asking for and would RWA be willing to pay for it? Because this is not a small job. Or a medium job. Or even a big job. This is huge. Compensation will be proportionate for any good DEI consultant who wanted to even do an estimate.

    3. Also if you were a DEI consultant and you ran across this interview while researching a potential client, what would be your chances of saying yes to this job?

    My conclusion is that they will not find a DEI consultant before the Texas state government discovers they’re trying to operate a non-profit without a director or secretary.

    Random chaotic entropy of the universe take the wheel, I do believe RWA is hosed.

  14. 14
    Another Anne says:
    +2

    I am a reader, not an author and also do not use twitter, so my knowledge about the RWA crisis is based on what has been reported here. The first 2 podcast interviews were helpful in illuminating specific issues. I haven’t been able to finish listening to this one. It was painful!

    However, it seems to me that if RWA really wanted to communicate, they would have sent an officer or the Executive Director, not a PR person. Many years ago (in the 1990s), when I worked in a corporate setting, all of the officers and senior staff participated in media training annually. We had to do taped interviews with former TV reporters both at the beginning and at the end of the training, which usually covered 2 days. One thing I remember was the trainer telling us that people want to hear from management — not PR or the lawyers — because they want to hear the truth, not PR spin or legal obfuscation. On several occasions (as one of the in-house attorneys), I had to help prepare people for crisis interviews, which included developing talking points and then practice, practice, practice with questions before the person went to the interview. On some occasions this was done between 7 pm (after the evening news) and 10:00 pm so the reporter could get the interview done in time for the late broadcast. Even if you don’t have specific answers or facts yet — you still address as much as you can.

    This interview felt like Jessie was given a few talking points 5 minutes before the interview and that she wasn’t prepared for the questions that were asked (which seemed like obvious questions to me and I’m only following this at a distance). I’m not trying to excuse the unsatisfactory answers, but I also think that she was a sacrificial lamb because the people who are currently running the show were too cowardly to participate in the interview.

    Also, I agree with others — even if you can find a DEI consultant to take this job, you aren’t going to be able to consult out of the problem. Plus you need identified leaders to consult with — who are they?

  15. 15
    Julia says:
    +2

    Sarah- you did such a commendable job in this interview. Truly, I cannot thank you or give you enough accolades for the pressing you did and the repeated offerings for anything (anything at all) to indicate understanding or willingness to acknowledge the problem. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    Compliment: When your name comes up in conversation, wilting flowers lift their heads and fluff their leaves for sunshine has entered the room.

  16. 16
    Gail says:
    +2

    I got one clear point out of all this… and “you know” it was that nothing has been done.

  17. 17
    CK says:
    +2

    Hoo boy this was hard to listen to…anyone who has followed SBTB knows you would ask a question like “Is there a problem with racism in the membership?”. If they were going to give us a line at least have the lines prepared beforehand. I just…isn’t part of rebuilding trust acknowledging – directly, with words – what is wrong? I really hope the small amount of material Jessie Edwards was allowed to use is because the organization is in triage mode and not because they’re hoping this will just blow over if they sit tight and toss around buzzwords.
    Sarah, you are one of my favorite interviewers – I always like how you give people the uninterrupted space to finish their thoughts and how you respond fully to what they say. Just wanted to add to the list that I really appreciated how these questions were direct without being leading – the answers could have gone in many directions and they could have been informative and interesting, you are very talented.

  18. 18
    Jo says:
    +2

    As a reader only (and a British not American one at that), who does not have a twitter account (for my peace of mind, but occasionally looks in to see what’s being talked about in Romancelandia and elsewhere) I have only been dipping in and out of these issues since they first came to my attention, so thank you so very much for your commitment to this series if interviews in the post-fallout time. And thank you too for your blunt question (the three different versions of it) asking about racism in the membership. The lack of honest response makes it clear to me that those in power just don’t GAF and sent a PR person to simply sooth the masses (of course yet another decision that backfired).

    TBH, the whole interview reminds me of addicts who are in denial. ‘you know’ those ones that despite their protestations of doing better, will never be able to fight their issues as they simply refuse to admit to them. It also stinks of the popular notion that in certain circles it is so much worse to be called a bigot than it is to actually be bigoted or even worse, actually be subjected to bigotry.

    And I feel sorry in advance for whoever is appointed to this unicorn DEI position. It’s an awfully big responsibility to have on a single pair of shoulders…

    And as for the fact that Dreamspinner is effectively stealing from its own suppliers, the double standards and severe conflict of interest with that ex-president elect person just make my head spin. I just can’t understand how any of those people at RWA who are involved in the decisions in either of these atrocious situations can hold their heads up or sleep at night. Their behavior is DESPICABLE.

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