My son spotted the t-shirt on the attached photo at the Shedd Aquarium gift shop last weekend. It cracks me up every time I look at it. It is reminiscent of Gary Larson’s brilliant Far Side cartoons that routinely turned our perceptions upside down with hilarious results. We often think of how we are affected by the world around us, but how often do we put ourselves in the shoes, or fins, of others?
The biggest criticism and complaint I hear in drowning prevention circles is how irresponsible, ignorant and generally uncaring parents are regarding water safety and their children. I’ve heard that parents just don’t care, that they should know better, that they practically want their children to die just so that their life would be easier. In other words, we are putting great messages and warnings out there and those darned parents just don’t care, aren’t listening, or aren’t acting correctly.
Really??? I challenge each and every one of you to put yourself in their shoes. How many of you really, truly knew that drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1-4 globally? How many of you knew that before personal tragedy or your profession made you aware that drowning is such a danger and that it happens so fast and so quietly? And even if you are so prescient, I challenge you to take two children under age four to the pool or beach and see how hard it is to watch them diligently, with no tantrums. Oh yes, tying one of them to a chair or staying out of the water is cheating.
We need to take responsibility. We are not communicating effectively.
I am reminded of a corporate boondoggle retreat, where, faced with senior management from around the country, the CEO doggedly answered questions about the direction of the company until he lost it and started pounding on the podium yelling, ‘We have a vision, damn it! You just don’t understand it!!!!’. Even at the ripe old age of 26 I realized that if we, the management staff, didn’t understand where the company was headed, than something was seriously wrong with the communication process.
Communication is only effective if the message is received, correctly perceived, and results in the desired action. Just because WE know the correct actions regarding water safety doesn’t mean that we are communicating them effectively. In fact, I would argue that we are too close to the issue, it all seems so obvious to us, but it’s not. If we were communicating effectively, behavior and attitudes would change and drowning rates would be steadily dropping, but they aren’t. We need to bring in experts in communications and marketing to package the messages, test them on real people (not each other), and distribute them across effective channels. I’ll be talking more about ‘Marketing Drowning Prevention Effectively’ at the National Drowning Prevention Alliance Symposium on March 8. I hope you can make it, or if not, contact me for a copy of my speech and, hopefully, the conference organizers will also make it available on YouTube.
Fortunately, the overwhelming number of parents genuinely love their children and want to keep them safe. We have a willing audience IF we communicate effectively. Let’s stop thinking like the lifeguard and put ourselves in the piranha’s place.