When I learned I would spend 24 hours aboard one of America’s most powerful warships and biggest representative of democracy and peace, I expected to learn some powerful lessons. About leadership, service to country, citizenship, and international relations.
What I didn’t expect was a lesson in “old school” communications. You know, the face-to-face kind – actual, real, interpersonal kind. Meeting new people, sharing experiences, shaking hands, looking strangers in the eye. You might ask: huh?
Let me explain…
When the US Navy selected me and more than a dozen of my peers to spend 24 hours aboard the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), it did so because we are among those who are considered well connected in the social media world. We have a broad social network, and are connected to many others who have even larger networks. I’m sure the Navy expected we would spread the word about CVN-70, its mission and its amazing crew. Trust me, we have done just that…reaching hundreds of thousands of people in our social networks, spreading good, positive and respectful messages about the amazing work performed by the men and women of the US armed forces.
It seems counter-intuitive: take a dozen, well-connected communications professionals – people who are tied tightly to their smart phones, tablets, laptops and to their online networks – and send them 100 miles offshore into an environment where they are completely cut off from the rest of the world – no Internet, no cell signal, no Wi-Fi. Yet, interestingly, it turns out Steve Fiebing, Deputy Public Affairs Officer and Coordinator of the Distinguished Visitor Embark Program in San Diego knows exactly what he is doing.
What happened is kind of amazing. To start, none of us were distracted – instead of being eyes down on our devices, we were paying full attention to what was going on around us. And, we were fully engaged in the activities, the discussions and the dialog. And, we began to fall back on basic human interaction – we introduced ourselves, we shook hands, we looked into peoples’ eyes, and we talked – you know, real conversation.
Steve will likely admit that he first has safety in mind. You can’t have a bunch of citizens wandering around the world’s most dangerous work environment – the deck of an aircraft carrier, with jets screaming in at 150 mph just feet away – and have those people distracted by sending text messages and tweets. Trust me – safety is everyone’s job on an aircraft carrier. And Steve will also be practical – the CVN-70 is one of the world’s largest warships, so with secrecy in mind, open Wi-Fi networks and Internet access have to be carefully managed (there were rooms where they had to clear sensitive, classified material before we entered).
But in the end, I think the Navy understands implicitly that the best way to tell their story is to totally immerse their guests into the ship’s routine and operations and let them experience it real and raw. Because when you find yourself deep inside an aircraft carrier with 5,000 men and women doing their jobs protecting this country’s freedom, you quickly understand the kinds of messages I think the Navy wanted our social media group to spread to our networks.
There are a couple of valuable communications lessons that were learned from this aspect of the CVN-70 embark that translate very nicely to the world of corporate communications:
First, your people are your organization’s best asset. The men and women of CVN-70 are the best ambassadors of the US Navy. They are committed, happy, serious, determined and very proud of what they are doing. And the way they communicate that is far more credible than their officers possibly can. Translate that to industry: company employees are often the best asset of any business, and they can tell a company’s story best – don’t isolate them…leverage them.
Second, a planned tour works best when your guests are fully immersed in the environment. I’ve been on so many plant tours over my career where media, analysts, and customers are behind rope lines and safety glass and far from the factory floor. If the Navy can figure out how to bring distinguished visitors into the middle of a flight deck, then those of us in public relations can get our influencers into the middle of our company’s operations better than we are doing today.
Lastly, take a page from Steve’s playbook – cut people off from the distractions of the world and give them a chance to fully engage. Telling the story of CVN-70 was easier because our group was fully focused on what was happening around us, and not distracted by the buzz of the latest text or tweet. Imagine how effective your next business meeting might be if everyone simply shut off the devices and concentrated on the topic at hand.
On a personal note: I’m as guilty as most of you of being addicted to my device. It’s always in my hand, I’m looking at it at dinner, in bed, in meetings – I can’t stop, and it’s a bad habit. Perhaps it’s not so bad because everyone around me is doing the same thing. Here’s the problem: life passes you by.
So let me tell you about my personal lesson out there 150 miles southwest of San Diego in the middle of the ocean. For the first time in a long time, I had to put the device away and focus on the people around me. Walking through the passageways of that great ship, I simply loved meeting the crew members who make the USS Carl Vinson America’s favorite carrier. I found myself saying hello, thanking these young men and women for their service, stopping to shake hands, meeting the eyes of passing sailors and saying hello and smiling – these are things I just don’t do enough because I’m too busy looking at my damn iPhone. Instead of texting and tweeting, I sat at breakfast with a master chief from Philadelphia, talked about our kids, asked about his 18 years of service, and talked about life…and it felt good.
I’ve had a corporate client for the past 14 months that is in the communications and collaboration industry. The people at Unify often say: “business begins with a conversation.” It’s true. On the CVN-70, a group of some of the world’s most “connected” people were disconnected for 24 hours and experienced something similar – as human beings, we are at our best when we look each other in the eye and have a conversation. Too often, we hide behind email and technology – letting the devices do the work of interaction.
Put down the device once in a while and engage…my unexpected lesson from 24 hours with the men and women of the United States Navy.