I’m Concerned About the Increase in Divisive Rhetoric and Here’s What I’m Doing About It


I’m not sure about you (and at the risk of over generalizing), but I’m noticing a drastic change in how Americans communicate and how some media outlets treat the subjects of their stories today. While I don’t intend for this to be a political commentary, I’m sensing an appallingly intolerant tone from some of those running for president, with many candidates seeming to strike an “us versus them” chord when articulating their platforms. If you look at many magazine covers or news programs, sensational stories seem to overtake the positive pieces, with a growing percentage focusing on a “villain,” rather than a “hero.” And I’d be lying if I told you that I’m able to easily stomach the horrific shootings of police officers, minorities, theatergoers, students, military members, reporters, etc. and simply accept these deaths as “normal behavior” because…well…it’s America.

Could there be a new, lowered standard in the amount of respect that people are willing to give one another? I’m petrified of becoming desensitized and, frankly, do not want to become comfortable with the increasingly hateful rhetoric and negative media portrayals. As someone who was raised to see the best in people, I obstinately want to believe that there is some logical causation for why some people are choosing to hurt one another with words or actions. Is it stress? Or fear? I don’t intend to oversimplify the reasons, but I am the first to say that I can always strive to do more for others and be better every day.

In searching for potential solutions to counter what I perceive to be a dangerous and divisive cultural phenomenon, I’m reminded of a quote from Anne Frank, the teenage Holocaust victim who authored a personal diary. Frank’s account of her horrific situation was filled with optimism and a surprising amount of hope for her future in spite of the looming threat of being captured by the Nazis during World War II.

“How wonderful it is that no one need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world  -- Anne Frank

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My Pledge for the New Year: To Lead With Compassion

compassion definition

It’s that time of year. As 2013 comes to a close, many of us take time to reflect on what we’ve done well and how we could improve. Others formulate resolutions, creating goals that focus on personal or professional growth. Some may look at from where we’ve drawn strength and inspiration and what confounds us or makes us weak.

While this annual ritual of soul searching and goal setting can be healthy, it can also be daunting. Each year, I find myself aspiring to do more, be better and identify new and greater ways to give back to my community and my country. While I maintain the same desire to improve in 2014, I’m newly inspired to add a new goal to the list – to lead with compassion.

This past weekend, I received the most incredible news related to my Coast Guard reserve career. I’m advancing to chief petty officer on January 1! Becoming a chief in the Coast Guard is an immense honor and comes with new and remarkable responsibilities. Chiefs are often charged with the awesome tasks of molding future leaders in their enlisted ranks, providing guidance and leadership and setting the tone for the units in which they serve. However, the honor and privilege of advancing to chief might never have occurred but for the compassion of others.

During my deployment to Louisiana as the social media lead for the Deepwater Horizon response, I became the temporary target for many who were frustrated with the oil spill clean up or looking for anything they believed to be wrong with the operation. While unfair and misdirected, those across the social web and the media had the right – no matter how incorrect – to share their perspective. However, the toll of incessant and often mean-spirited public scrutiny combined with the stress of losing my civilian job when I returned to work left me somewhat broken, grasping for confidence and searching for faith in my abilities. I seriously considered transitioning out of the Coast Guard and began to evaluate new civilian career paths.

Pillars of compassion

I’m lucky. I truly believe that the compassion of others allowed me to begin the process of personal rebuilding. My husband could not have been more supportive, traveling to Louisiana twice during the darkest days of my deployment and helping me to get back on my feet when I returned. Friends, family and acquaintances went out of their way to offer advice and provided chances to develop as a person and a professional. Many in the Coast Guard encouraged me to continue and even grow in my career, guiding me with wisdom and opportunities to regain my confidence. Eventually, I landed a new civilian position and, because of the benevolence of a few senior executives, soon found myself leading a high profile project. My support system demonstrated compassion in helping to get me back on track and identified the openings I needed to re-establish myself one step at a time.

If not for the compassion imparted to me by my husband, my friends, my family and my professional acquaintances, I might have made very different decisions about my life and my livelihood. However, I can’t help but consider some recent events that made an impression on me, as well. The passing of Nelson Mandela reminded me about his immense capacity for forgiveness and ability to heal a nation with his compassion for everyone – especially for those who wronged him. Pope Francis continues to surprise me with his messages of humility, open-mindedness and inclusion, causing many to take a fresh look at the papacy. I also remain hopeful that people will give PR professional, Justine Sacco, another chance following her encounter with a social media “lynch mob” and she can recover to become a stronger, smarter individual. I can’t help but believe that the takeaway in each of these instances is how some modicum of compassion can truly transform a life (or many lives).

As I enter this new phase of my Coast Guard career and take on 2014 with renewed focus and vigor, I am filled with appreciation and gratitude for my support system all over again. In an era of the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of social media (for good and for bad), I’m pledging to lead with compassion first and extend the same kindness and understanding that others demonstrated toward me.

The Brand of “Me” Versus the Brand of “We”

Part Two – the Brand of “Me”How do you want to be portrayed online?

While he was on leave a few months ago, a Coastie posted a status update on Facebook that alluded to the fact that he was drunk.  While he was not in any danger of being asked to stand watch in an emergency, I quietly wondered if the post had left a bad taste in anyone’s mouth besides mine.  To be blunt, the post did not reflect the image I wanted the Coast Guard to publicly portray nor was it smart for this individual to be sharing this information via a searchable social media tool.  What would a future employer think about this person?

Wikipedia says, “Personal branding is the process whereby people and their careers are marked as brands. Personal branding often involves the application of one’s name to various products. For example, celebrity real-estate mogul Donald Trump uses his last name extensively on his buildings and on the products he endorses.”

Essentially, a poor portrayal of one’s self may have a negative impact on you and your employer.  To quote personal branding expert Dan Schwabel, he says, “Personal branding is not about you, it’s about everyone else.”

With this in mind, what does your online brand say about you?  Knowing that it could reflect on the Coast Guard and its brand, would you do anything different in how you represent yourself via social media tools?

In a Web 2.0 era, where our status updates, videos, pictures and online comments are all searchable and on a stage for the world to see, it’s critical that all of us put our best face forward.  Why?  One of our shipmate’s actions could have an impact on the Coast Guard’s overall brand.  While we’re not perfect and should not expect our online presence to be sterile, we are all in this together.

I’m interested in hearing your feedback and look forward to your good questions.

The Brand of “We” Versus the Brand of “Me”

Part One – the Brand of “We”

I believe that the U.S. Coast Guard is truly forward thinking when it comes to its real-time communications strategy, its open and visionary social media policy and its willingness to be nimble and adaptable as the news media climate evolves.  As a proud public affairs reservist and a public relations/social media strategist in my civilian life, I often struggle with the fact that the Coast Guard’s brand and communications strategy don’t always mesh.  In all fairness, as a reservist, I don’t always have insight into the daily communication from headquarters or the field units.

We're in this together...
We’re in this together…

Why should each of us care about a cohesive, consistent brand and communications strategy for the Coast Guard?

Because it is so critical that we consider how we as a branch of the military want to be portrayed in the media and in the public eye. This is how we build taxpayer trust, support from our elected officials and confidence from our partner organizations.  We could not do our jobs every day without these three things.

An organization’s brand is often conveyed in values or feelings.  For the Coast Guard, the emphasis appears to be on tradition, security, guardianship and in our amazing ability to save lives in the most trying of circumstances.  I know many of our official press releases have “1790. A tradition of excellence.” at the bottom of the page.  I believe this statement is intended to convey some of the Coast Guard’s brand values.

Working hard to save lives...

An organization’s key messages and overarching communications strategy – in a perfect world – should tie back to the brand and the aforementioned brand values.  While the Coast Guard is adept at releasing time-sensitive news to the media and general public, we communicators often lose messaging focus as we compete with the frenzied pace of a 24-hour news cycle.  I’ll be honest – it’s tough to consider our brand when a high-stakes case is getting lots of attention from the media and the blogosphere.

However, if we’re inconsistent, the public must be even more confused with who we are…take a look:

What does the Coast Guard do?

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