A few days ago, my friend and former colleague, Matt Heller, posted some interesting and spot-on thoughts on professionalism on his excellent leadership blog. Matt makes the point that “the perception of safety is largely determined by what we see and experience,” and to support this point he attached this photo capture from a travel channel program on amusement parks, asking the question, “is this really how you want your facility portrayed on TV, or at all?”
Matt’s point is very well taken. Appearance and professionalism matter when it comes to the perception of safety. However, it doesn’t just stop at the perception of safety. Rather, these same issues – appearance, cleanliness, and professionalism - also have a real impact on the perception of credibility – and this is a crucial issue to getting the best result possible in every form of legal proceeding.
I’m going to be blunt about something. The amusement industry (particularly the carnival segment) has a public image problem. Not that the public doesn’t love our facilities, but in the context of the professional business and legal community, our industry as a whole is generally not as well regarded in terms of professionalism, sophistication, and business acumen as other more “traditional” businesses like banks, real estate, or manufacturing. I routinely find myself explaining to well-educated professionals that the amusement industry is not populated by toothless, uneducated, and frequently intoxicated “rednecks” who have no concern for the safety of our guests. The word “carnie,” and all its negative connotations, frequently comes up. Is it a stereotype. Absolutely. Is it unfair? Undoubtedly, as are all stereotypes. Is it real? Unfortunately, yes (check out this blog or this more recent blog** if you don’t believe me.). And because of it, I’ve seen numerous instances in legal proceedings, i.e. investigative proceedings, depositions, legislative hearings, court appearances, or administrative matters, where the amusement industry faces a tough sell before anyone even opens their mouths. So what do we do about it?
** Update 9/1/11. Note that, as originally published, this link referred to a blog posting making fun of "carnies." The blog author, however, received one negative comment from one of my readers and requested that I remove the link to his blog. As you can see in the comments section below, I refused. Apparently dissatisfied with my refusal, the blogger has apparently changed all references to "carnies" in his piece to "lawyers." I point this out only to clear up any confusion as to why I would link to a piece that now makes very little sense in light of its references to "lawyers" instead of "carnies." Of course, the blogger in question is free to edit his blog however he sees fit, within legal constraints, so I have made no request (and will make no request) that he alter his content.**
The answer is really relatively straightforward. If you want the public (especially judges, jurors, or legislators) to take the message seriously, it must be delivered in a manner they deem professional. Just as the overall appearance of your facility and your documents influences the public perception of safety, so too does personal appearance, professionalism, and attention to detail reflect on credibility in a legal proceeding. Do it right, and your message will be more willingly received and seriously considered – in short, you will be more credible and persuasive. Do it wrong, and you could be sunk before you ever start. A few examples I have personally seen might help illustrate my point.
- Several years ago, I attended a legislative hearing on a state bill that would make mechanical bulls legal when they previously were not. A small group of local carnival owners / operators testified at the hearing against the bill. These individuals presented themselves wearing ripped jeans, overalls, grungy shirts, and baseball caps. At a legislative hearing within the walls of the State Capitol. They didn’t have to say a word because, frankly, it didn’t matter what they said. The legislator’s preconception that these were nothing but “carnies,” in every negative sense of the word, was all but confirmed by the time they walked from the entrance to the hearing room to the table to testify. The audience openly grumbled (some laughed) at their appearance and the legislators could not have taken them less seriously.
- In another instance, I was present for legislative testimony given by an upper level manager at a fixed site amusement park. While this manager dressed absolutely appropriately for the situation (i.e. suit and tie), the presentation was unorganized. The testimony itself was internally inconsistent and ineffective at making the point desired. It seemed unrehearsed and consequently unpolished and unprofessional. Further, the manager seemed to be surprised when the legislators asked questions about the park’s position and was unprepared to give cogent answers.
- Last year, I had a case where witnesses on both sides were faced with many many (did I mention many) documents that reflected poorly on credibility. Emails and business documents laced with profanity, jokes, personal attacks, rude comments leveled toward the other side, and generally sloppy record keeping. Rather than focus on the merits of the case, these documents caused everyone to spend an inordinate amount of time in court trying to rebuild the credibility of their clients– who, based on the condition and content of the documents, appeared vindictive and apathetic about professionalism and details.
The point is simple. We must keep in mind that, unless you happen to be a highly placed executive in the industry or are affiliated with the “big boys” that have instant name recognition and thus tend to avoid the public image problems I have been talking about, it is vital to keep appearance (both personal appearance and the appearance of your facility and documentation) at the front of your mind whenever dealing with the public and especially in legal proceedings. Ask yourself:
|Who Is A More Credible Representative Of This Operation?|
ü Are your employees dressed professionally when on the job? Do they have a uniform and appear well groomed? Or do they look like they just slept in their car and came to work? Credibility starts with day-to-day operation and it is important to build a message of confidence with each of our guests – one of them may be a potential plaintiff.
ü Have you you or your lawyer reviewed your documents, including internal emails (hint, there’s no such thing) to ensure that they reflect professionally on your operation? Are they free of personal comments, profanity, or other unprofessional language? Are they free of inordinate (i.e. beyond normal "wear and tear" from being used as expected) amounts of dirt, mud, food, drink, and water stains (see Matt's photo above for what not to do!). If documents must be kept out in the elements, such as at a ride location, try keeping them in a watertight container or, at least, in a plastic sleeve to protect them and keep them looking as good as possible. Its much better to present a court with documentation that shows nothing more than normal, everyday use than to ask the judge or jurors to focus on pertinent data hiding within a a crumpled up, creased document filled with extraneous comments, doodling, and food / beverage stains.
ü If asked to speak or testify, either in court, at a legislative hearing, or with the media, have you rehearsed your comments and anticipated questions that might be asked so that your answers are clear, succinct, and comprehensible? Its worth it in many instances to involve an attorney in this preparation process (I happen to know a good one). At the very least, get the input of a public relations professional in your organization.
ü Are you or your employees dressed professionally for those appearances. Unless your attorney advises otherwise, these are not usually the times to show up in anything except your Sunday best. Short of a tuxedo, its hard to overdress for a court appearance. Conservative business attire sends a message to the Court that you are just as professional and sophisticated in your business as every other business person the judge deals with in other cases. The word “carnie” never enters the mind and the message will be more willingly received and considered.
Remember that, in the court of law and the court of public opinion, the content of your message sometimes only matters as much as how it is delivered. To maximize the persuasive value of your position, and gain the most advantage you can in persuading a judge, jury, or the public to adopt your position, you have to not only talk the part, but look the part.