September 7th, 2011
I was in a client meeting when an earthquake shook New York City a couple weeks ago. We all stared at each other for a few seconds and waited for the building to fall down. When it didn’t, we went back to business.
Back to the same agenda, for sure, but not before the New Yorkers in the room had conjured 9/11. The few, quiet comments didn’t turn into a conversation – no one wanted that – but the sickening feeling was there, in the room with us, as fresh and raw as ever. Interestingly, the morning actually started with someone remarking that the beautiful weather reminded her of that lovely clear day almost ten years ago. In New York, good things remind us. Bad things remind us. It’s just here. All the time.
When I finally did make it back, I took the 6 Train down to the Financial District alone. I think it was September 21. When I climbed out of the subway, I discovered a planet I did not recognize. Crowds were everywhere. People were crying. Others were clutching photos of loved ones for whom they were still searching. The sidewalk was thick with people, milling around, shouting to get each other’s attention, taking pictures, and generally contributing to the chaos. I took five or six steps and just froze. When I stopped, I could finally see the gray particles floating in the air, landing on my shoulders and in my hair. It took me a few seconds to realize what they were.
It was the end of the world, and all I could do was stand there under a big scaffold, staring in the direction of a smoking hole in the ground.
I don’t know how long I stayed immobile, with the flakes wafting down on my sweater. It must have been a minute or two because, as in some slo-mo movie scene, a cop seemed to emerge from nowhere. He walked over to me, put his hand on my arm and said, “Are you OK, miss? Do you need help?” And then he stood there, waiting, as if I was his only concern in the world. He maintained eye contact and just – waited – with the kindest look on his face.
Snapped out of my daze, I immediately said I was fine, embarrassed that I’d taken this guy away from others who were clearly in greater disress.
I have never forgotten that moment and never will. That cop had everything more important to do, but he saw me through a huge mass of people. He took a couple of seconds to care. He put a human face on the inhuman. I think he saved me, in a fashion, right there on the sidewalk.
I’m not saying that I haven’t paid attention to reality in the last decade, but that experience changed my view of the New York City Police Department brand, just a little bit, forever.
I have written before about tiny moments of truth that can make a huge difference. Small gestures of grace, seemingly disconnected from the main event, which land with such a force (because the consumer expects so much less) that they have a material if not permanent impact on a brand’s ability to truly connect.
Look for the individuals who can do this for your brand. Take care of them. Because in a stressful moment, you are not there, your CEO is not there, your PR is not there, your advertising is not there. But that lone person is. And for a customer, he or she may be all that makes your brand human: something it seems the entire world could use a little bit more of right now.