- Corporate Culture
When I was in graduate school, I had a professor who had a sign on his door that read: “I cannot teach something to someone who believes they already know it”.
I was reminded of that sign as I read some of the blogs and comments of my fellow Page members that suggested that good PR would somehow have stopped bad corporate decisions, like those at BP or Hewlett-Packard. I have heard my good friend and one of the most respected professors of PR, Don Wright, say on numerous occasions that Enron might not have had its problems had it had a good PR chief. Really? Is our profession really that powerful that we can give counsel and advice when it is not wanted or accepted?
Corporate culture is the basis of corporate reputation. Cultures that refuse to listen or respect dissent often make “tone-deaf” decisions that result if reputation damaged. Enron would have never hired a top PR professional. He/she would have been deemed a “threat to the order”. Had one been hired, they would have soon been gone. Even the very best corporate communicator cannot make a dent in the “armor” of an executive who wants “water carriers” and sycophants rather than open discussion and debate on issues. Look at the example of BP. Tony Hayward fired his PR team. While they may have been helpful in handling the Gulf crisis, I doubt they would have had any impact on the management decisions that lead to the disaster.
I know about this first-hand. I spent 21-years as a corporate executive at DuPont, Bayer and Nortel. For 20 of those 21-years, I had a great career working with wonderful CEOs. I never lacked a “seat at the table”. I was the ultimate consigliore and power broker. After two-years at Nortel, I was promoted to lead both marketing and communications. But, during my fourth and last year at Nortel, I had the misfortune of working with a new CEO who proudly announced at our first executive committee meeting “if I don’t have staff that do what I want them to do, they have no value”. Within a year, our CFO, HR chief, general counsel, head of government affairs, three division presidents, and I were gone. The CEO thought my successor’s counsel –someone I had refused to hire during my tenure--was perfect; he implemented everything the CEO and management team wanted, even if questionable legally and ethically, without debate.
I saw first-hand how even a top corporate communications executive (I cannot fain false modesty here) could not move a mountain that turned into a mountain range when our CEO replaced his executive team with others who similarly had no time for counsel and advice. I was lucky, though. I quickly exercised my options, knowing what was to come. Nortel stock was $124.50 when I left; it was $.11 within 18-months. The company is now bankrupt and about 50,000 people lost their jobs. Sadly, the CEO of whom I speak took $200 million and left early. His successor and three CFOs are still fighting jail time for violating SEC regulations. I had warned against the actions for which the company was sued; for my “insubordination” and failure to implement these bad policies, I was asked to leave.
Communicators are advisors - staff officers, who are the equivalent of internal consultants. We are no different from other staff functions. We give advice. Some of it is taken; some of it is not taken. We should never expect that all of our advice will be followed, but we have every right to expect that our advice will be listened to. Good management seeks advice and counsel before making decisions. When good decisions are made on the basis of our counsel, we should feel good, but we should recognize that the decision was the result of good executive leadership.
So, when we have meetings designed to make us “indispensible”, my mind wonders—indispensible to whom? There may be some of our colleagues who cannot gain an advisory role because of their own failures; but there are many others who have learned that even the best PR counsel cannot chip through a mind that will not listen or believe it already knows the answer.
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