Thursday, May 22, 2014

On Memorial Day there is One Brand

The following post originally appeared on this blog on May 25, 2012:

Staff Sgt. Lawrence O'Brien (2nd from Rt. Back Row)
One of the strongest brands we have in America is the flag.  Red and white stripes.  Fifty white stars against a blue field.  Like so many in our country, I never get tired of seeing it.

Of course, it means different things to different people, but in many respects, it represents the same things to most people.  Freedom is probably the one idea that most readily comes to mind.

Can you imagine what that flag looks like to the families awaiting the safe return of military men and women coming home from overseas?  Or what a World War II veteran thinks about when he stands for the National Anthem and faces the stars and stripes at a baseball game?

I read an article recently about a group of freshly naturalized U.S. citizens and in the accompanying photo, each with a smile on his or her face, proudly held a small red, white and blue flag.  I wondered what that flag meant to them.

A few years ago, I wrote a family history and not surprisingly, I learned that my ancestors were drawn to America for the freedom to live a life less restrictive than in the countries they left.  America was and still is viewed as a land of opportunity, but that would not be possible without the freedoms we enjoy and that are guaranteed by our democratic system.

These thoughts are all abstract unless you or someone you know put something on the line to protect our system of freedoms and democracy.

Before I was born, my father and his brothers enlisted in the U.S. Army and Navy.  They were deployed in locations around the world to face enemies in the Pacific and Europe.

One uncle told me the story of how he was left for dead in what was later called the Battle of the Bulge.  For three days he laid in the cold, hoping someone would help him.  He wasn’t much for detail when he told his story, but it gave me the impression he went through quite a bit that winter.  The flag meant something to him.

During Viet Nam, I was too young to serve, but I remember the older boys in the neighborhood would often come back on leave, wearing their sharp Marine, Navy or Army uniforms.  At that point, they were proud of who they were and what they represented.  At first you’d see larger groups of them together at the corner store in their uniforms, laughing and joking and catching up.  But after a while, the groups got smaller.  I remember a more muted tone here and there when we’d find out that one of our neighborhood boys wasn’t coming home.

As an altar boy, I served several funerals of vets and was always transfixed with the precise and ritualistic manner with which the flag was so reverently handled and presented to surviving family members.

More recently, we all have had the opportunity to know and see our family members, friends and neighbors go off to places like Afghanistan and Iraq.  And whether our experience is personal or if we just learn about it through old and new media, the sacrifices they make for our freedoms are all too real and all too current.

Memorial Day is commonly thought of as the first three-day weekend of summer and its unofficial kick-off. We celebrate with picnics and parades, usually.  Another Memorial Day tradition for many is to visit a cemetery where a loved one is memorialized with fresh flowers, and if the loved one is a vet, a bright new U.S. flag.

That’s a tradition I picked up just a few years ago when my own Army veteran father died.  Yesterday, I visited his final resting place and that of so many other vets.  A neatly trimmed field of red, white and blue flags.  Not a sorrowful place on a weekend like this.  A place of honor and respect where the flag  reminds us of so many who served and who risked their lives to protect our American way of life.

The flag is an iconic brand not because of what it looks like but because of what it represents to those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it.  The act of remembering is why we call it Memorial Day.  Can there be anything more powerful than that? 

Note about the photo.  My uncle was Staff Sgt. Lawrence O'Brien, who flew numerous missions over Europe in World War II.  He earned the Army's Distinguished Flying Cross.  He never came home.

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. 

Follow me on Twitter @OBrienPR

Friday, May 2, 2014

Body Language: Does the crossed-arms pose project confidence or defensiveness?

Over the years, I’ve handled arrangements for many leadership photo shoots.  As often as not, I’ve worked with a photographer, perhaps an art director or graphic designer, and of course, the subject of the photo.

Usually, the one whose photo is being taken already has some thoughts about how he or she would like to be photographed.  One CEO once made it very clear he did not want to be shot from eye level or below.  He was very self-conscious of how such angles made his neck and chin look. Another was very aware of her “good side” and knew how to tilt her head in such a way that when she was photographed the shot emphasized the left side of her face.

I’ve come to expect that most senior executives and leaders have had their photograph taken so often that by the time they assume the top job that they’ve learned how to “turn on” the smile expression they like best for photographs.  I’ve seen more than a few subjects preoccupied with some business issue or side conversation switch from looking frustrated or perplexed, to likeable and welcoming in milliseconds when the photographer was ready to snap the photo.

Still, there is one pose that not uncommonly comes up in photo shoots.  It’s the crossed arms shot. 

You probably have seen it in countless business publications.  Stock photo libraries are filled with thousands of options of the stock pose.

Those who like it think it makes the subject look confident and strong.  Detractors feel it sends a non-verbal cue that the subject is subliminally defensive.

My feelings on such body language are more the latter.  Tied to this is context.  If the caption or content that accompanies the photo is bad or negative news, the last thing I want the subject looking is defensive.  Not even a hint.  There are other ways to show transparency and confidence.

Such body language is not exclusive to the U.S.  In places like India, the pose is thought of in much the same way.
So, if you have a photo shoot planned any time in the near future, one thing you may want to remember is not to bring out the tired old cliché of the crossed arms photo and try something fresh.