The Business Card Shuffle

I spent more than a week trying to get Chris Keyes to return my calls. So when the senior editor at Outside Magazine reached out to shake my hand during the breakfast meeting of the Conservation Alliance I was naturally thrilled. It’s at these events during the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market when the distance between professional relationships shrinks and contact can be made face to face. But the depth and strength of any relationship should never be taken for granted. And as I discovered it’s usually best to truly connect with a person before you try to game an exchange of business cards into something more than the meeting of two people.

I met Chris a few months earlier during the Mountain Film Festival in Telluride. Hoping to make the most of this opportunity to reconnect I immediately launched into why I wanted to get in touch.

In a recent post to its web site Outside had hosted a conversation among several leading advocates for diversity in outdoor recreation and the conservation movement. In a discussion moderated by Stephen Lockheart, board chairman of the environmental education program Nature Bridge, a panel of experts, all minorities, gathered to talk about the controversial findings of Dr. Carolyn Finney. (Click here to read =>

A researcher at U.C. Berkeley, Finney observed and counted almost 7,000 images published in 44 issues Outside Magazine from 1991 through 2001. Looking for photographs that depicted people of color she discovered only 103 shots of African-Americans, a majority of which included prominent black sports figures in an urban setting. Contending that the media’s failure to portray people of color in nature contributes to a lack of diversity in the environmental movement, the panel posed several challenging questions and provided a great deal of insight to this very important topic.

What I felt was missing though was some statement from Outside Magazine on Dr. Finney’s research. I had hoped they’d address the issue and perhaps offer up some form of commitment to seek out images and create stories that are more inclusive to the U.S. population as whole. Failing that I wanted to get a comment from an editor like Chris Keyes that might shed some light on the magazine’s position regarding diversity and how it might contribute to attracting a broader audience of outdoor enthusiasts and conservation advocates.

So there in the Marriot Hotel ballroom I had my opportunity to ask the tough question. Explaining the reason for my repeated phone calls I made it clear I was looking merely for answers and not to assign blame or demand accountability. But from the blinking eyes of his blank stare all I got was confusion. And finally when I stopped to take a breath he said, “I don’t think I’m who you think I am.”

Then I blinked at him. “Remember,” he said. “We used to work together back when you were a rep for Sweetwater. I’m Seth Copp.”

Apart from seldom needing sunscreen one of the many advantages of my complexion is my inability to blush or go pale. But as surely as I stood there all the blood drained from my face as recognition dawned. Several years back Seth and I sold water filters and today as printed on his business card he’s the vice president and general manager of Merrell Footwear.

There are no words to express how embarrassed I am to have made such a bone-headed mistake. On closer observation Chris and Seth have similar facial characteristics, hair and eye color, height, but they couldn’t be more different in appearance. So intent was I to get my point across that I failed utterly to establish the very basic connection (like identity recognition) that makes communication possible. Though completely sincere in my desire to engage in a worthwhile exchange this experience taught me that at their most basic even business relationships really are just connections between two people. If you come at someone with an agenda, talking at them and not with them all you’re  going to do is build walls. Once you put up barriers that obstruct conversation  you’re just going to have to tear them down if you’re ever going to connect again.

It’s been a week since the end of Outdoor Retailer. And now that the dust has settled from another great summer market, a lot of us will take this week to circle back to affirm the new relationships we established. I personally have a stack of 75 business cards just scanned and entered into my contact database. I’ll be sure to connect with each person individually and make sure, for God’s sake, the next time we meet I won’t have them confused with someone else. ~ JEM

Continuing coverage of the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market is made possible with the support of Knupp, Watson & Wallman

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I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.