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Joyce Vanderscheuren

© 2001

Action Research

Creating a Writing Assessment to Help a Public Relations Firm Select New Employees

This spring, a friend of mine who is a partner in a public relations firm asked me if I would consider doing some writing coaching for some of her junior staff. I was excited about the project, but a little worried about teaching adults within a business setting. I wondered if my skills would transfer.

After I had my first coaching session, I learned that my skills and my client's instructional needs were a good match, after all. Although my client was an English major, she had a lot of trouble with writing; particularly with coming up with creative options for leads, overall organization, and proofreading for errors in content and mechanics. Most amazing to me was the fact that she was immersed in print all day, every day, yet she really didn't know where to begin when given a work assignment.

When I checked out books on business writing from the library to develop curriculum for our sessions, I learned that her situation is really not all that uncommon. While English majors are required to do a lot of reading and writing, a paper on Shakespeare's Sonnets does not transfer all that well to writing a press release.

My friend and her business partner may be unique in that they're really investing in their employees to bring their skills up to par. However, they would like to make sure that the next person they hire is equipped with solid writing skills, and can do the projects without further training or lots of rewriting and editing on their part. They asked me if I would work with them to develop a writing assessment tool for potential hires.

In order to help them with this project, I need to answer these questions: What writing assessments are already available in the business world? What specific writing skills do they consider essential for new hires? What kinds of writing prompts would elicit writing that would provide a comprehensive evaluation of their skills? How should the assessment be scored?

Plan of Action
1) Identify Existing Business Writing Assessments
Complete an informal phone survey of employers within local PR agencies. Are they having similar issues with their employees? How do they evaluate writing skills, prior to the hire of a new employee?

2) Determine Needs
The employers of the public relations firm will need to determine what entry level skills they want their employees to have, in terms of writing. What's really important for their employees to be able to do independently? What kinds of training are they willing to provide to employees in an "on the job situation", once they've been hired?

3) Explore Possible Writing Formats for Prompts
Once they come up with a list of needs, we'll look at writing formats. What type of business writing prompts will provide a good assessment of their "need" areas? For example, if the employee is an administrative assistant, writing a memo from a list of information may be appropriate. If they're hiring writers who will be billing their hours, they would need to have prompts that require them to be creative. For example, they could write a feature article, or jazz up dull headings in a corporate newsletter.

4) Develop Rubric
A rubric will need to be made for each writing prompt.

5) Test Rubric on Writing Samples
Use employee samples from within the business, as well as drawing from other businesses to test the rubric. Which samples "make the cut?" Which ones don't?

6) Reevaluate Prompts and Rubric
Are the prompts eliciting the kind of information that is needed? Is the rubric reliable? (Do raters come up with a simlar score?)

7) Rewrite Prompts and Rubric, if necessary

Owners of the public relations firm
Employee writing samples
Phone interviews with other public relations firms to determine:

• What, if any, forms of writing assessments are used within the local business community?
• Are other public relations firms experiencing the same challenges with their staff in regard to the lack of quality writing skills?

MWP Colleagues

Burckmyer, Becky. Why Does My Boss Hate My Writing? Holbrook: Adams Media, 1999.

Harris, Jim and Brannick, John. Finding and Keeping Great Employees. New York: American Management Association, 1999.

Jaster, Frank, Assessing Corporate Training Programs In Business Communications. Phoenix, AZ: Annual Meeting of the American Business Communication Association, 1981.

Lamb, Nancy. How to Write It. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1998.

Smith, Edward and Bernhardt, Stephen. Writing At Work. Lincolnwood: NTC Publishing, 1997.

Stuckey, Marty. The Basics of Business Writing. New York: American Management Association, 1992. Outlaw, Wayne. Smart Staffing. Dearborn: Upstart, 1998.


Creative Writing

Whooping Cough Story

In my past life, I was one of those people that other people make good natured jokes about. "Oh, that's just Joyce's luck--that would happen to her, wouldn't it?" There are many stories, but one that stands out is the time I had to take my driver's test from the same police officer who fined me for driving a motorcycle without a license on public roads at age fourteen. I mean really, what are the odds? Of course, even though two years had passed, he remembered exactly who I was at the start of the test. Once he cleared my identity, he cleared his throat meaningfully and simply said "Let's begin."

OK. Maybe it wasn't just purely bad luck. Maybe there was a good measure of stupidity on my part. I shouldn't have been driving that motorcycle in the first place.

But in the case of my daughter's contraction of Whooping Cough, there was nothing I could have done--no smarter way to have been. She came down with it at just a month of age--a full four weeks before she was to begin her first series of immunization shots.

I understand this now, but when she was diagnosed, guilt was my closest companion, because I was the one who gave it to her.

Like many women, the delivery of my firstborn didn't go all that smoothly. I spent sixteen hours in labor before our nurse decided that the baby was "belly-up". One last round of pushes, cheered on by a new mob of medical staff who seemed to come out of nowhere to witness the "last hurrah", and I was rushed to surgery for a C-section. It wasn't long before I was able to see my daughter for the first time. . .. a swollen and fleshy blue-eyed beauty with an extraordinary amount of spiky brown hair. . .. . . absolutely perfect. I had had a long list of names that I thought I would ponder for hours before choosing the right one. But my husband, Mike, was so excited that, within seconds, I agreed to his choice--Hannah. . .. . .our Hannah.

That first week after her birth was nothing like I had read about. Although the stack of pregnancy and baby books I kept by my bedside had warned me it wouldn't be easy, everything seemed so much, much, more difficult than I had ever imagined.

Our problems started in the hospital. In the recovery room, I was hooked up to a morphine drip to ease the pain from my incision. Mid-way through the first night, I woke to find my hand swollen to twice its normal size. The night nurse removed the IV, and put me on an oral pain killer. Maybe she had too many things to do before her shift was over, but it was never clear to me that from that time on, I was responsible for requesting my medication. Hours later, I was crazy with pain. I felt like I was back in the height of labor, only this time, I had the added electricity of the raw, eight inch incision that stretched across my abdomen. By the time the next round of pills took effect, I was at a new level of exhaustion.

But there was simply no time to make up for the sleep that, I thought, would allow my body to heal itself. During the next few days and nights in the hospital, I learned the rhythm of my new life with a newborn. . ..feedings every two hours, followed by twenty-minute sessions with a breast pump to encourage my reluctant body to get going already (it took seven days for my milk to finally come in), diaper changes, attending classes to learn to bathe and care for an infant, in between visits with well-meaning friends and family. By the third day, I was beyond exhaustion. I developed and started listening to an inner voice that broke every task that I had to do down into tiny baby steps.

I was getting no true sleep. I tried to head off visitors by explaining how tired I was, but some insisted "I just have to see that baby before she leaves the hospital." I must have known that something was wrong, because I started comparing myself to other mothers who had had C-sections. They seemed to have more energy and color in their cheeks, compared to my own skin, which looked chalky and foreign to me. My constant thought was "If I could just get some sleep, I'll feel better."

Our cue that something was definitely wrong came exactly one week after Hannah's birth. Although it was mid-June, and ninety degree weather, I had a sudden case of the chills. My thinking was muddied, and it didn't seem all that strange to ask Mike to turn up the heat, because I was "just so cold". Calm and curious about all of the medical procedures during Hannah's birth, for the first time, he looked panicked.

When he called the OBGYN, he was told to wait a few hours to see if my temperature went down, rather than come in for an appointment. Predictably, at midnight, we packed ourselves and Hannah up for a trip to urgent care. My temperature had steadied at 102.

I thought the doctor would tell me that my incision was infected. Instead, he misdiagnosed a uterine infection. He prescribed Zithromax to knock out the bacteria. My prescription label had said "take two pills, twice daily." It wasn't until the last day of taking the pills that I realized that I had misread the label, and took only half of the required dose. Had I actually taken the right amount of the antibiotic at that time, I might not be telling this story.

By this time, I had developed a persistent cough. I was sure that I must have had bronchitis---the familiar dry hack kept me from sleep. But this cough seemed to go one step further; choking, I would bolt to an upright position to catch my breath. Several times, I had such fits that I ran to the toilet, expecting to vomit.

Again, we called the doctor, explaining my error with the dosage, and the severity of the cough that had developed. I came in for an appointment. He checked my vitals, listened to the breathing of my chest, and determined that I would simply "have to wait it out." "But what if I give this cough to Hannah?" I asked. He seemed unconcerned and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say "Not to worry."

A few days later, our out-of- town relatives began to arrive. We probably set a record for first time parents----twenty-three nights of guests within a thirty day time span. I was thrilled that they wanted to come and that they were so excited for us and our new life, yet I couldn't get beyond how sick I was starting to feel. I kept pushing it back, thinking "This is just what new mothers go through--buck up, baby." So we rode the Minneapolis Touring Trolley, went out for lunch and dinner, had backyard barbecues, and hit a few museums. All the while, the silent mantra in my head was "Please don't let Hannah get this cough from me."

At first, it seemed innocent enough. A tiny little cough from a tiny little body. I can remember my mother-in-law reassuring me---"If it were wet and loose, then it would be more of a concern." Still, I called the doctor and took her in. "Her chest sounds fine--it should play itself out. Come back if it persists for more than a week." I wanted to say "But you don't understand. . .. . .this isn't your typical cough." But instead, I gathered up my baby, diaper bag and stroller, and headed home. Her cough progressed----more frequent, with longer durations at each episode, ending with an eerie high-pitched squeal. Her color would change from a healthy pink to bright pink to red and beyond. At the start of an episode, Mike and I would rush to the crib to hold her upright, patting her back to help her work through it. Normally, Hannah was an unbelievably relaxed newborn. You could cup her head in one hand, and her bottom in the other and her arms would dangle, palms open. But these coughing fits would make her whole body draw into itself. When they were finally over, she would slump in exhaustion.

Again, I called the doctor. "Is she having trouble breathing?" he asked. At the time, it seemed like a hard question to answer. Like me, she'd have to catch her breath after a coughing spell, but there was no congestion in her lungs or nose. I kept concentrating on whether the cough was settling in her chest, like pneumonia. "Is she turning blue?" "No, not quite," I hesitated. The hesitancy in my voice was probably what prompted the doctor to tell me to bring her in so he could take a culture to see what we were dealing with.

In retrospect, it seems crazy that I just didn't demand, insist, plead, to have her tested for something---anything--so much earlier. But I kept getting the feeling that I was a new, over reactive Mom, and there was really nothing to worry about.

The test was simple. A small scrape from the lining of the inside of her nose. All we had to do now was wait for the culture to grow.

I got the call at 8:30 at night, the day all of my guests had gone home. My husband had left the day before for his first business trip since her birth. "Your daughter has Pertussis," the doctor said. "Per-what?" I asked. "Pertussis. It's the "P" in the DTP shot. It's more commonly known as Whooping Cough." I thought that Whooping Cough had died with the Dark Ages. It sounded as ancient as Scarlet Fever or the Black Plague. I wanted him to tell me to simply pick up a prescription that would clear it up and make it "all better." Instead, he gave me directions to the Minneapolis Children's Hospital and said that a room would be prepared for Hannah within an hour.

So I threw a bag of clothes together and drove the ten-minute drive to the hospital, pulling off to the side of the street once to unbuckle her car seat, hold her upright, pat her on the back, and plead "Breathe!" When we got to the hospital, the resident who checked me in confirmed my feelings that this was a very rare (and unlucky) occurrence, when he said "Hmmm, Pertussis. Haven't seen this yet. Interesting." But I was to find later that it's really not all that rare. It's out there. . ..waiting for its most vulnerable victims. . .. . .unimmunized children, and the elderly.

Pertussis is a contagious disease of the respiratory tract. The bacteria is found in the nose, mouth, and throat, and is spread by the droplets resulting from sneezing or coughing. In my case, I probably contracted it from one of my high school students about a week before Hannah was born, with the fever and cough surfacing about twelve days later.

In a healthy adult, it's a menace, and may cause you to gag, vomit, become short of breath, and even faint. For an infant, especially under the age of six months, it's a potential killer. Coughing episodes may last for up to a minute, causing the baby to turn blue from the lack of oxygen.

The most recent figures from the National Center for Health Statistics show that there were five deaths out of the 7,405 cases in the U.S. in 1998. On paper, those numbers don't seem that bad. "Only five," you may think to yourself. But if you had to watch your child choking and gasping for air, five would seem like a very high number indeed. Potential complications resulting from Pertussis include secondary infections like pneumonia and collapse of the lung or damage to the nervous system, including encephalitis, convulsions or brain damage manifesting itself in the form of cerebral palsy.

It's a good thing I didn't know all of these things as I walked with the resident and a nurse to our room, wheeling Hannah behind me in a red Radio Flyer Wagon. I had a sense of relief, because she was finally going to get some help.

It was at the same time reassuring and disconcerting to walk past cheery murals with gold plated frames underneath, animal cartoon characters, and the colored art drawings hanging outside of some of the patients' rooms. I knew that Hannah was at the best place she could possibly be, yet it was alarming to think that all ten floors housed very, very sick children.

The resident had explained when checking us in that I would need to wear a surgeon's mask when walking anywhere in the hospital other than in Hannah's room. Her room was an isolation room, with double steel doors, and a vacuum effect, with air circulating inward. Any time a nurse or doctor entered, they prepared by putting on a mask, gloves, and a surgical apron before entering the second door. I felt like I was in a bad Science Fiction movie; the kind I never go to see because I lay awake at night thinking about them. Wearing my mask, I once went down to the cafeteria to grab a bite to eat. When I entered the elevator, people took two huge steps back or to the side, making room for me. It was a knee-jerk reaction. I could hear them thinking, "Whatever she has, I don't want." I can't say that I really blamed them.

Once we were in our room, the nurse hooked Hannah up to two monitors. One measured apnea, or cessation of breathing, and the other measured her oxygen saturation levels. She explained that anything below 90% oxygen saturation was below normal. And so began my fixation with the blinking red and green lights, and the ever changing bell curve of one breath in, one breath out. At first, the inevitable plummet of the bright green numbers following a coughing spell would send me to the window, pounding to get the desk nurse's attention. It would quickly do a backwards count . . . .97. . .93. . .91. . ..87. . .83. . .79. . .75. . .72. . .69. . .69. . .69. . .73. . .. . ..and ever so slowly crawl back up again.

It didn't really register that Hannah was just in for observation until the doctor made rounds the next morning. "So what are you going to do for Hannah?" I asked hopefully. I expected there to be some kind of drug that would just take care of it. He explained that there was really nothing to be done right now; if her oxygen saturation levels went too low, the nurse would swipe a oxygen wand by her face to help her to start breathing again. "We want to be sparing with the oxygen wand, because we don't want her to become dependent on it. If she begins to have difficulty recovering from the episodes on her own, she would need to be on oxygen full-time, but we don't want it to get to that point." He didn't say it, but the look on his face told me that the need to be on oxygen full time was very, very bad; possibly the point of no return. . .

*Author's note When I finish this article,I'd like to try to publish it in Parents magazine, or a similar venue. You should know that Hannah made it through this illness without any long-term health effects. We spent seven days in the hospital. Armed with at-home monitors and infant CPR training, we spent the next two weeks on a constant vigil. The cough stayed with her for four months, lessening in severity as time went on. I feel that this is an important article to try to get published because, like I was, many people are ignorant about how devastating these childhood diseases can be. I'm especially concerned about a recent movement, where some parents skip immunizations in fear that their child may develop autism. There's no clear evidence of a connection, from what I've read. I'd like them to hear my story before they make, in my mind, such a drastic and foolish decision. What can I say about Hannah now? She's had four haircuts before her first birthday. She's learning how to make jokes with her expressions and movements. She's crazy for music, and when you hold her in front of your chest, flails her arms and legs to the beat of any song that she likes. . ..the faster, the better. (I'm a little worried about a future career in exotic dancing). She's put off walking because she prefers to be carried. She gives the absolute best bear hugs, the kind that wrap around your whole body. As for me? I've decided that I'm actually very, very lucky.