The Center for the Intrepid, a state-of-the-art physical rehabilitation facility for our nation’s wounded warriors, opened at Fort Sam Houston back in January 2007. I had been following the center’s development for more than a year as a journalist. Amid all the political arguments about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the one thing everyone seemed to agree about was that when the men and women who went to fight those wars were injured, they deserved the very best care available.
Staff Sgt. Steve Bosson at the 2013 Texas Regional Games in San Antonio.
Over the preceding years, I had written a number of columns about wounded warriors, including one for the Wall Street Journal that featured Staff Sgt. Steve Bosson. I planned to write another for the Journal about the opening of the Center for the Intrepid.
The grand opening ceremony was filled with dignitaries and celebrities. Cher and Denzel Washington were there. So were Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain, who were at the time presidential hopefuls.
As the ceremony began, the eyes of the audience were on the stage, while the eyes of many journalists were on the audience. My focus was on the wounded warriors, which allowed me to see this:
“As the Joint Service Color Guard of the Military District of Washington presented colors, Staff Sgt. Arnold-Garcia rose to attention, without crutches, on one leg.
“Next to him was a soldier I knew. Staff Sgt. Steve Bosson of the 1st Cavalry Division is a bear of a man. Looking at his frame, you wouldn’t know he’s been through three years of surgeries, prosthetic fittings and rehabilitation. Staff Sgt. Bosson lost the lower half of his left leg to a grenade in an ambush west of Baghdad.
“At moments during the National Anthem, Staff Sgt. Arnold-Garcia would teeter a bit. To keep his balance, he would occasionally touch the elbow of his right arm, drawn up in salute, to the shoulder of Staff Sgt. Bosson. It was a fleeting yet moving portrait of genuine sacrifice.”
That column was probably the most widely read and shared column I ever wrote. More important to me, it helped generate contributions for the Center, and the family of Staff Sgt. Arnold-Garcia sent me a touching note of thanks.
There were three ingredients that made that column a success – ingredients that are as important to the public relations and public affairs worlds as they are to journalism.
First, you have to do your homework. It was only because I had spent a good amount of time covering wounded warriors, talking to them and the leaders at Fort Sam Houston, that I knew them. Just as important, they knew me.
The same is true with agency work. When you get down into the weeds with a client, you learn about them, but they also learn about you.
Second, and related, relationships matter. The military community is very insular. Its members – military personnel and their families – have a lot of distrust of outsiders, especially journalists.
Clients are often the same. We ask them to let us into their businesses and handle their reputations. We need to have established a trusting relationship to do so.
Third, look past the obvious to discover what the real story or issue is. For many people covering the CFI’s opening ceremony, Rosie O’Donnell and John Cougar Mellencamp were the story. They were watching the stage or the stars in the crowd. I was watching the guys on crutches and in wheelchairs.
When people talk about businesses, they tend to focus on products or services or high-profile leaders. Sometimes, the heart of a business – or a business problem – is buried in its history or in a corporate culture that no one stops to think about. Sometimes you have to look where no one else is looking to see what no one else can see.