Why I won’t wear my Dutch jersey this weekend

As the World Cup approaches close, I’m reminded that Americans largely aren’t very good fans.

People all over the world have spent the last month chanting, cheering and raving about the world’s largest championship. Here in the U.S., our concerns over the tournament seemed largely limited to the bad calls that took away our goals, because we want the world to know that we’re happier complaining than cheering. Once Ghana knocked us out (again), our minds went back to figuring out what to do over the long weekend.

We Americans kinda suck at this. Here, being a fan doesn’t mean anything. How many Duke fans do you know who actually went to Duke? How many people in Red Sox hats actually had those hats five years ago? Soccer’s even worse. No one wears L.A. Galaxy jerseys; they wear Man U or Christiano Ronaldo jerseys — not because they’re from Manchester or Portugal, but because Man U and Ronaldo are good. People’s affinity toward teams is so fluid that turning on a ceiling fan will make most fans change their allegiance. How many Miami Heat jerseys do you think are going to sell in Topeka this week? I bet it’ll be a lot.

I have a friend who’s never been to Brazil. He doesn’t speak Portuguese, he’s not South American… he doesn’t even look good in yellow. But he refers to Brazil’s team as “my boys.” Don’t ask me why. I lived in Germany so I pull for the Germans, but I’d never call them “my” team.

I have this Dutch jersey that I bought a long time ago simply because I like the color. So, yeah, I’m guilty too. I don’t own an American jersey. But it’s never too late to change. I’m not Dutch and I’ve only visited the Netherlands twice. This weekend, my Dutch orange will stay on the shelf.

Danger in personalizing your organization?

A couple of days ago, Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times wrote an article about how trendy it’s become to hate BP and CEO Tony Hayward. She was on NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday to talk about the article.

The parallel she brought up, and that many others have brought up in covering BP, is to the Bhopal disaster involving Union Carbide. That disaster was much worse and caused a greater loss of life, but inflicted less financial penalty on Union Carbide and drew much less hatred toward the organization and its leaders.

Kellaway brings up four reasons that modern society is so much more interested in hating corporations/organizations now than in the past: the hangover from the credit disaster, the growth of the Internet and social media, anger over executive pay and the personification of corporations/organizations.

The fourth reason — the personification of corporations/organizations — is interesting to me as a public relations practitioner. Kellaway says that corporations have gone out of their way to include their values in their marketing as a way to seem more human. Many corps/orgs have used social media to do this also. CEO’s are blogging, companies have Twitter accounts, you can become their fan on Facebook, etc.

Kellaway says in her NPR interview that this is dangerous. While personifying your organization can help get you loved when things are going well, it also makes it easier for people to turn on you when things go bad.

She says: “The companies think if we give these people a human dimension — and not only to them as individuals, but if we make our whole companies cuddly and human with their values, people will love us more. Well, love and hate are sort of the same thing, in the end. And the flip side is that when things go wrong, then people turn against both the CEO and the company in a far more emotional way than they used to. And in the end, that’s the company’s fault.”

But wouldn’t avoidance of that risk be counter to the goals of effective public relations? Couldn’t we say that we are being more open by being in social media and having our leaders communicating directly with stakeholders? Aren’t these tools strengthening the relationships between organizations and stakeholders?

In my organization, we’re using video to personify our project. Videos that feature our workers are a great community relations tool — they show that our project isn’t just reaching out to the community, but it’s actually part of the community. Our project isn’t just an organization, it’s a group of people — people who drive the same roads as you, shop at the same stores as you and have kids on your kid’s baseball team. I think it creates a bond.

Now, granted, Tony Hayward is not an ironworker in Richmond, Ky., which probably makes him easier to hate, but what do you think? Are organizations running a risk by personifying themselves?