In a striking coincidence, while I was typing yesterday’s blogpost, a ping alerted me to the arrival of email from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Special Agent Tommy Ray had forwarded a recent news story in the Bradenton Herald about yet another homicide solved through the distribution of cold case playing cards bearing photographs of homicide victims, a technique used to publicize unsolved crimes. Tommy Ray developed the cards in 2005, and the program has since been adopted by a number of other agencies, most effectively when the decks of cards are disseminated to prison inmates.
In March ’07, when two other volunteer journalists and I were struggling to locate law enforcement professionals we could engage in productive discussions about new ways of using the Internet to solve crimes, Tommy came through for us without hesitation. He spoke to me at length for an online story, and he followed up when a few of its assertions caused me the unnecessary heartburn of a novice reporter.
Tommy’s email yesterday reminded me of something crucial to all of us. The traits that make him a phenomenally successful communicator are also the qualities possessed by most A-listers, be they bloggers, technology experts, authors, politicians, agents, activists, or marketers. Tommy’s peculiar attributes, while not exactly mysterious, can be a bit of a challenge to describe. Here—for emulation by anyone who wants to excel at networking—is what I see:
He’s genuine. Tommy is apparently guileless. That’s an incredibly rare trait in a law enforcement investigator. I guarantee anyone reading this would walk away with the impression they knew him after nothing more than a minute or two of conversation. Imagine the effect that has on an informant or a crime victim.
He’s unmediated. Technically, there is—or at least there was—a telephone greeting delivered in an exquisite Georgia drawl by the administrative assistant who answers calls to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. And the Cold Case Assessment Team Tommy heads has a website that elicits information from the public. But generally, you deal directly with Tommy by phone or in person, because he’s hands-on.
He flies solo. This is a guy who doesn’t come with a PR spokesperson, a team of handlers, assistants, a sidekick, bodyguards, or a script, although I understand he knows how to enjoy the professional conferences to which he’s invited as a speaker.
He’s unflappable. Because Tommy is his own brand, he doesn’t seem to need—shall I say—to squint a lot, swagger, or express annoyance when a cell phone call is repeatedly disconnected. His smooth layer of Southern-style self-deprecation makes it hard to imagine a situation he couldn’t control.
He’s empathetic. He listens. He asks questions. He offers suggestions. He returns calls. He responds to email. He takes part in the discussion; he doesn’t fend off skepticism with sarcasm. There’s no shortage of unsolved crimes, and there aren’t enough hours in the day to devote to solving them, but Tommy never makes it seem as though he’s too busy to be bothered. It may not be the reason his coworkers call him “Hollywood,” but it’s what makes him a rock star.
I have only one side of the story, and I’m doubtlessly opinionated, a pleasure in which professional journalists haven’t the luxury of indulging. Ironically, my 1,800 former colleagues will tell you I’ve never been known for pulling punches (metaphorically speaking, of course). Cynicism is more my style. Maybe some of Tommy’s coworkers will notice this post and leave their comments here to set the record about him straight, but even though I’ve never met the guy in person, I don’t think I’m wrong about Tommy Ray.
Anyone who wants to master the art of networking, for whatever purpose, can learn from his example.
If you arrive at this post because you need more information about the investigation of unsolved crimes, Stacy Horn launched a very good website to publicize her book The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad. She maintains a list of cold case squads and other relevant resources, including Tommy Ray’s Cold Case Assessment Team in Polk County, Florida.