Knock on wood

The King of Pop is dead. OK, I admit it. I was never a fan. I'm not a fan of pop music in general. And like Farrah Fawcett, another pop culture icon who also died last week, Michael Jackson and his music seemed too slick, too artificial, too produced for my taste. Not phony exactly, just too made up, too commercial, and too manufactured.

In pop culture, fame and fortune are destinations we aspire to. But when it comes to the way we want people or businesses or politicians to communicate, we prefer it to be authentic. It's like the difference between acoustic and electric music. They are both good, but acoustic music is more authentic because it sounds the way a wooden instrument was built to sound. It is not distorted by effects or electronics, or forced through speakers. It is as real as it gets.

Authentic communication is one reason why social media is so powerful. It is raw, uncensored, personal and emotional. We demand authentic communication from our political leaders, and when they deliver, we support them in a way that is also authentic because they connect with us on a level we can accept without skepticism. We don't always agree with them on everything, but we accept the fact that they are not just blowing smoke.

Organizations that communicate authentically are better positioned to build long-term brand loyalty. Healthcare organizations can reach more patients, and nonprofits can serve more constituents, if they earn the trust of the community. Corporations can protect their reputation and retain their customers even when hard times force them to make difficult decisions. Even if tuition goes up, students will want to attend a university that communicates authentically about the challenges that lie ahead.

Farrah and the King of Pop found out that fame can be fleeting and fans can be fickle, even for pop culture icons. But if we make the commitment to communicate authentically, the chances are good - knock on wood - that we will reap real and long lasting rewards.

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Father's Day

Today is Father's Day and I'm thinking about my dad. I think about him a lot since he's been gone, but most of all during baseball season. Baseball is one of those true things that fathers and sons share and pass down, like war stories or treasured heirlooms. It was the one way my father and I could still connect even during those years when we weren't communicating at all.

It was at a Father's Day doubleheader at Shea Stadium where I learned that my dad was a baseball genius. He taught me how to keep score. He knew exactly when the Dodgers bus would pull up to the player's gate before the game so I could get Sandy Koufax's autograph, and how to slip the usher a five so we could get down to the good seats. I inherited from my father, who grew up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, the unfortunate genetic trait that makes me live and die with my team even though I know that I am doomed to be bitterly disappointed year after year after year.

Today on Father's Day, I realize that even when communication seems hopeless there is always a way for people to find a connection. Even in Iran, where the government cuts off access to cell phones and TV, but the people use Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to tell the world what is going on in the streets of Tehran. Even in Washington, where the debate over health care becomes louder and more contentious while reasonable compromises are being floated behind the scenes that make finding common ground seem possible.

This weekend, I went to my first game at the Mets new stadium, Citi Field, and I thought about my father. Today I realize that an even better way to honor him would be to figure out how to connect with people when it seems impossible, and how to sidestep the traps that prevent us from communicating. We all have lessons we learned from our fathers. If we are as smart as they were, we take those lessons and use them in our daily lives to make our little corner of the world a better place.

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Don't rain on my parade

Let's review the recent national news. The first Latina ever nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, who was raised by a single mother in the Bronx housing projects and worked her way up to the top of the judicial system, is called a racist by a bunch of cranky old white guys. Democrats and Republicans took turns locking themselves out of the New York State Senate. When asked to take a seat at the healthcare reform table, special interest groups responded by drawing a line in the sand. We saw two Americans murdered by domestic terrorists.

What we have here is more than just a failure to communicate. We are drowning in a sea of toxic rhetoric that makes respectful dialogue impossible. You can blame it on anger and fear and economic stress if you want, but this hate filled atmosphere did not happen overnight. It is fueled by insults, slurs and verbal tantrums on radio, TV and the Internet, and it will not disappear overnight either.

Jack Kerouac wrote, "Imagine trying to explain to 1,000 raving Tokyo snake dancers in the street that you are looking for peace but you won't join the parade." When we try and communicate with people who just cannot see things from our point of view, we are in for trouble. Either we are not communicating clearly or the other party is not willing to listen. Finding common ground becomes impossible if we insist on remaining in our own separate camps.

The PR profession gets a bad rap, but the PR pros I am privileged to call my colleagues are sincere, ethical communicators who counsel their clients to practice integrity and to communicate with respect. It is time for us as a profession to step up to the plate and take a leadership role in guiding America away from the precipice and back toward undivided ground. It is time for us to return America to a place where we can voice our own individual opinions in our churches or synagogues or capitols or museums without fear of being shut up or shot down.

We can begin by challenging the media to behave responsibly. We can counsel our clients to engage in positive collaboration that builds healthy communities. And we can challenge ourselves to motivate our extensive social networks toward positive change and to make sure we always communicate responsibly within those networks.

You don't have to join the parade to see that the dancers are having fun. Let them. Maybe that simple act of tolerance is all it takes to make a difference.

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