I recently traveled to Florida to attend the annual Surf Lifesaving Training Officer Academy hosted by the Southeast Region of the United States Lifesaving Association. To say it was a big deal for me is an understatement. I was honored to be included, thrilled to participate, and so humbled by the everyday actions of my coastal colleagues.
One of my assignments was to present a chapter from the new edition of the USLA manual, a 400-page bible of open-water lifesaving and professional standards. When my first choice topic, The Flatwater Beach, was already taken, I selected chapter 24, Public Relations. I was so nervous about presenting to this group, but my friend and lifeguard co-worker Erin told me the subject was right up my alley. I thought “whatever” and hoped to earn some credibility among my ocean rescue associates.
My goal was to cover the material and not tell too many stories. And I’ve had plenty of instances of BAD public relations while supervising young professionals. (Like the lifeguard who created a “sex tree” that included my supervisor and his wife, among others, and posted it on Facebook. What an awesome day that was.) For the presentation, I created an activity I hoped would share some examples and provide an opportunity for lifeguard consideration and decision-making.
I addressed the audience of 29 men and one woman, each and every one of them way tougher than I am. At the end, Danny Ojito, an accomplished lifesaving professional and member of Fort Lauderdale Ocean Rescue, said he would have liked more examples. The truth is it took me a few days to think of a GOOD example of lifeguard public relations. But here it is:
Backyard Lifeguards. I’m serious. Our outfit could be a case study for lifeguards whose image alone garners trust. Among our hiring criteria is a clean-cut physically fit appearance. Lifeguards must be neatly groomed and have no visible tattoos. Men must be clean-shaven. Women must do their hair and put on makeup. Yes, really.
Our entire look from the uniform to the rescue equipment has been carefully coordinated, specific to the environment served. On a job site, a lifeguard may wear only BYLG gear, which they may earn or buy. As to professional conduct, lifeguards know that customer service is part of their S.H.I.F.T., a mnemonic representing actions from a smile and handshake to follow-up questions at the end of the engagement. Our lifeguards have business cards. Immediately after an event, I send the customer a thank-you and evaluation.
We never miss an opportunity to demonstrate our expertise in water safety. We speak at preschools, exhibit at camp fairs, and attend special events at the children’s museum and grand openings of swim schools. We address public concerns in the media, and advocate for lifeguards at St. Louis county and Missouri state parks, where drownings occur with staggering frequency. We help aspiring triathletes with their swimming stroke and promote open-water practice events to help them prepare for more treacherous swims than those in the calm dark flat warm water of east central Missouri.
Why? Because in the Show-Me State and everywhere else, people believe what they see. If they see that we have taken great care in the little things, they’ll trust that we’ve put the same attention into the big things. Like recruiting excellent staff, training them to meet the needs of each site, ensuring that they have all the necessary equipment, and operating responsibly with the proper insurance.
And we have. Our staff is outstanding. It includes doctors, nurses, fitness trainers, aquatic supervisors, teachers, coaches, and triathletes, each of them with years of experience and leadership positions in this or a related field. They are vigilant and skilled at spotting the subtlest signs of distress. They all have impeccable rescue skills, should they ever be needed.
But I’ll be honest. We have nothing on the USLA. Ocean rescuers are badass. In the academy with me were champion swimmers, surfers, and paddlers, all with physical strength and emotional fortitude that few St. Louis lifeguards can even imagine. I could not fathom a plane crashing in my water and attempting to rescue 23 people, as my young colleague Lucas Bocanegra and his Miami Beach Ocean Rescue co-workers have done. Stories of heroics among USLA lifeguards are an everyday occurrence.
That’s not the case in St. Louis. Given the relatively calm and controlled conditions of our water, whether a lifeguard has the chops may never be revealed. But that doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t have them. Just that no one may ever see them. So we have to demonstrate our professional readiness in other ways.
As I said in my presentation, Public Relations isn’t just the ability to do it, it’s the ability to sell it. USLA lifeguards sell it every day in a number of ways, most notably by actually DOING what people expect them to do—make rescues. I was so focused on what we lacked in opportunity that I forgot to mention what we do extraordinarily well. We sell portable professional contract lifeguard services to private locations and events in middle America. And we do damn near ALL OF IT through positive public relations.
Life is not always a beach. Whatever the venue, people deserve an immediate response to their distress. And with proper supervision, drowning is preventable.
Thank you, Danny. And sorry for taking so long to answer your question.