Utilities

NOTIONS: Can you look at the world through others' eyes?

February 5, 2007

For the past few months, I've served on a search committee for a large not-forprofit organization. We're hoping to select and hire a senior public relations executive. During interviews for this position, many finalists have said the same thing: The organization needs to do a better job of "getting its message out."

This doesn't surprise me.

As head of a marketing communications consultancy, my phone rings frequently with prospective clients wanting help "getting our message out" because "we're the best-kept secret around" and "more people need to know about us."

Such statements, while well-intended, naively imply that there are lots of empty cranial vessels out there just dying to receive whatever message wafts their way.

Many of these would-be marketers also want to believe that if the message is sufficiently well-crafted that these veritable sheep can be moved from a state of total unawareness through the entire buying process-awareness, consideration, investigation, comparison, trial, purchase, reinforcement, referral, etc.-in a single advertisement, news story, brochure, etc.

Oh, how I wish it were so.

The blessing for us consumers and the bane for us marketers, however, is that human brains (most of them, anyway) act more like filters than sponges. We simply don't wake up in the morning thinking about banks or hospitals or law firms or universities or politicians or charities or widgets or utilities or whatever else someone is trying to sell us.

So the smartest of smart marketers, fund raisers, journalists, political consultants, human resources executives, PR professionals, bosses, employees, husbands, wives, parents and others who must cut through the clutter have discovered an age-old truth: It's not about sending messages at people; it's about building relationships with people.

And to do that well, one must master a rare and difficult skill: Seeing, hearing, understanding, appreciating, mirroring and otherwise approaching the world from other people's perspectives.

I have talked with men who fought in World War II. From some of them, I've heard fear and hatred of the Japanese enemies who fought against them. From their perspective-on the receiving end of weapons fire-that fear and hatred make perfect sense.

And as I grew up watching TV and going to the movies, I had that fear and hatred reinforced via stereotyped depictions of heartless, fearless Japanese generals, admirals, soldiers and kamikaze pilots.

But last weekend, when I went to see director Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima," these lifelong notions were shattered in two hours flat by a film shot entirely from the perspective of Japanese soldiers. On the big screen, I saw scared, honor-bound, confused human beings trying to defend their sacred homeland against the hopeless odds of an overwhelming American invasion force.

In one moving scene in particular, Eastwood drove his point home. A wounded American soldier is dragged into a cave by his enemies. The Japanese captors find and read aloud a letter that the American's mother has sent to him. In hushed, reverent silence, they discover that his mom is a lot like their moms, his life back home much like theirs.

Many years ago, when I lived in Connecticut, I helped start a youth leadership program. Our premise was simple. There were young people living in poor sections of Hartford who had never visited that city's wealthy suburbs nor interacted with the young people living there.

Similarly, most young suburbanites had never visited the poor sections of Hartford (except, perhaps, to drive through in fear), nor interacted with their urban counterparts.

So we brought groups of them together in a program we called "Common Ground," helping them learn to lead, and encouraging them to undertake joint community-service projects.

Most of all, we watched them discover that despite the little things (like economics, geography and, in some cases, race) that divided them, there were much bigger things (like humanity, hormones, pain-in-the-neck parents and frustrating teachers) that united them.

They did, in fact and in deed, have considerable common ground.

I'm getting married in a few weeks. That brings me great joy.

But having failed at the institution of marriage the first time around, and having caused considerable pain in the process; and having succeeded beyond all imagination the second time around, yet having had that love shattered by my love's early death, I've worked harder in the past year than I've ever worked in my life to see the world through my fiancée's eyes, and to open myself up so that she might see the world through mine.

Are you talking at people, or with them? Obsessed with your own tunnel vision, or embracing the shadows in others' eyes?



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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