Sunday, May 24, 2015

Remembering America's Fallen

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

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 (back row, second from right), who flew numerous missions over Europe in World War II.  He earned the Army's Distinguished Flying Cross.  He never came home.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Communicating Technical or Complex Information: Make it relatable

One of the most common challenges a professional communicator faces is how to educate or inform targeted audiences of complex or highly technical information.  A new medical treatment.  An electronic component that enables the equipment that enable your smart phone to work.  A chemical coating that protects the paint on your car from sun damage.

None of this sounds all that interesting, does it?

And that’s the challenge for the communications writer.  How do I clearly, thoroughly and accurately present information of a highly technical or complex nature and not lose my reader or audience?

The simple answer is, tell a story.  Tell an interesting story.  Make it about people not data, or components or acronyms.

If you don’t know where to start, then begin with the people behind the new development or advancements. Who are they? Why did they see a problem?  What made their journey to a solution so innovative or interesting?  Put it all down in your notes and early drafts.

Find out more about the people to be impacted by the innovation or new technology. Who are they?  Why will they benefit?  How will they benefit? Will this change their lives in any way?

The answers to these questions help turn technical information into knowledge with which people can relate. The challenge then for the writer is to put it all into an order that gives all of this a cohesive narrative, one that takes the story from its beginning to its end, and in the process, opens the readers’ eyes to the possibilities.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Book Review: Glass Jaw - A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal

It may be only May, but if you’re starting to compile a summer reading list for the beach, and you’re one of those rare people who read about PR while on vacation, here’s one to consider.  It’s called Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal, by Eric Dezenhall.  The book was published in late 2014.  For background, Dezenhall is the founder of Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., which was formed in 1987, and has handled a large number of high-profile crises.

His book, Glass Jaw focuses on crisis communications in the digital age.  He uses several recent communications crises to illustrate what he calls a “fiasco vortex,” where smaller problems escalate quickly thanks to the viral nature of the Internet.

The book explores another major characteristic of the current crisis communications climate, a twist on the old “man bites dog” scenario.  Glass Jaw focuses on how many recent crises today center on large, powerful organizations that were bullied and taken down by traditionally weaker or more powerless but tech savvy groups that know how to leverage digital media channels.

Or as Dezenhall points out, “the meek are predators and the strong are prey.”

The author explains that traditional crisis management tactics and strategies may not effectively counter some of these new types of attacks, and it can be folly to try to trade punches on social media.  He says that when some organizations find themselves the target of such campaigns, they often respond too quickly, apologize ineffectively, and generally over-react.

More to the point, he believes that both the cause and the solution to the controversy reside away from the public eye.  He likens controversies to icebergs, where the small top above the water is all that the world sees, but “Most of what’s really happening is happening in a place that few people see.”

So, while the public may see the media coverage, the statements, the apologies and the product recalls, Dezenhall says that behind the scenes are operational and strategic decisions, regulatory moves, and conflict avoidance.

Says Dezenhall, “Most crises that are successfully resolved are resolve due to business and operational considerations, which occur beneath the surface of the controversy iceberg.  Because these actions are often mundane and invisible, they go unheralded.  Above-the-surface communications strategies are over-hyped as damage control solutions, which may play a supporting role, but shouldn’t divert attention away from the big decisions that will ultimately determine the health of the principal.” 

In a sense, Glass Jaw is an anatomy of much current day news coverage and how some groups effectively leverage the power of digital media, both narrowly and as part of a broader strategy.