Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Politics of Youth Baseball: Illustrating self-interest at play

One of the factors that we address time and again in the business of public relations is self-interest.  Consistently, people we communicate with, or want to connect with want to know, “What’s in it for me?”

That’s often the context for communication, whether it be in employee relations, customer communication or investor relations.

It’s with this in mind that PR people have to get familiar with the whole notion of self-interest and how it plays into attitudes, perceptions, and the environment for communications.  Most in the PR business can tell you that no matter what you have to say, if you can’t appeal to the self-interest of the targeted audience, you’re facing an uphill battle.

Over the years, I’ve learned quite a bit about how self-interest plays into communication, but nowhere was I able to study it in the raw as I did when my (now grown) kids were involved in youth sports, or more specifically for this post, youth baseball.  One thing I noticed is that while you can find politics in just about any endeavor, politics in youth sports are much less hidden, not as camouflaged. 

It’s Not About Baseball 

Don’t get me wrong.  When it comes to sports baseball was my first love and it’s still one of my favorite sports.  I’m still able to maintain a certain amount of detachment when I watch baseball and other sports without being distracted by the egos, the off-the-field antics, and the theatrics that athletes and coaches force on those of us watching.  I look past that and enjoy the games in their most pure form. The strategy, the tactics, the struggles, the tension and drama that’s built into the fabric of the game, regardless of who’s involved.

Unfortunately, that’s not always achievable when you’re the coach, a player or when your kids are players.  Sometimes you can’t ignore some of the factors that aren’t driven by what’s in the best interest of the team, but rather by individual self-interest.  Knowing these factors and addressing them in the proper way can actually be good for the team.

So, with your permission, allow me to venture into the political aspect of youth baseball in the hopes of providing some illustration on how self-interest can play itself out.

The first thing to know about youth baseball is that when it comes to parents, the one thing it is not about is baseball, at least not first and foremost.  Rather, it’s about their kids and what they want for their kids and themselves.  “How does this affect me and my kid?”

Once you understand that the parents who coach and who run the leagues, and the parents in the stands have their own self-interest top-of-mind, then you can start to drill down to determine that self-interest.  To be sure, it varies from person to person, even within families.  Here are some examples centered primarily on some coaches: 
  • I want my kid to enjoy the game the way I did.
  • I want my kid to have friends.
  • I want my kid to be popular.
  • I want to relive my childhood through my kids.
  • I want my kid to be the star of the team.
  • I want my team to win at all costs to make me look like a great coach.
  • I want my kid to be a winner.
  • I want my kid to belong to something.
  • I want my kid to exercise.
  • I want to actively discourage another kid from playing so my kid will get the position next year.
  • I want to be a big shot in my community or my kids’ school community.
  • I want my kid to have a certain jersey number, position and amount of playing time.
  • I have to be involved on the field to look out for my kid.

These examples may not cover all of the kinds of self-interest that drive youth baseball politics, but they are some of the more common motivations.  Of course there are the more altruistic motivations, but these ones can be harder to find:

  • I want to ensure that all of the kids learn the right way to play the game.
  • I want to instill the values of sportsmanship in the kids.
  • I want to ensure fairness in all decision-making.
  • I want the kids to learn and have fun so they want to play again next year.

What is the takeaway for PR? 

If attitudes driven by self-interest can be so divergent and oftentimes emotionally charged with something as seemingly inconsequential as youth baseball, can you imagine how complex it can be when the subject turns to employee health benefits, environmental news, or uncertainty over how a merger or acquisition will affect people?

This youth baseball scenario reminds us that the most important understanding is that all communications activities are conducted against a backdrop of self-interest that varies from person to person.

We need to know that for each person we target, we must appeal at the most localized level possible, the self-interest of that individual.  Further, we need to realize as the old saying goes, “you can’t please everybody.”  At the same time, we do need to make sure to couch our communication so that at the very least we let people know we have identified and recognize their interests and concerns.

The common denominator for all self-interest is the future.  Regardless of the specific motive, most people want to know that steps are being taken, that present circumstances are such that the future will be better for them.  The key, however, is to make sure that one person’s self-interest doesn’t become so dominant that it impedes the interests of others.  That is both a leadership and a PR challenge. 

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