Carlos Gutierrez, former US Secretary of Commerce and former chief executive of the Kellogg Company, addressed the spring session of the Arthur Page Society on Friday. His message was extremely positive; he had learned the importance of having communications professionals at the decision-making table while in government, and intended to take that lesson back to the private sector. Yet later in his remarks he made a further commitment, to a centralized system of communications and simplicity of message, thereby undermining his purpose in making PR a true partner.

Secretary Gutierrez began by recommending a key role for communicators as players in the corporate decision-making process. In every meeting he had in the White House, a senior member of the public relations team would be present, often quiet until the end, when he or she would counsel on the viability of the policy. “In government, communications people are policy people; they know the details as thoroughly as those charged with the implementation of the policy,” he said.

He contrasted this with the positioning of PR folks in the private sector.

“In business, communicators aren’t always business people nor are they close to the strategy of the company. Communications is a strategic tool and communicators must be as prepared to discuss finance, marketing or distribution as the people responsible for those areas. Communicators must be in the game to be valuable. That is the CEO’s responsibility.”

He added that many CEOs fail to understand the value of communications.

“This is not about role-playing or acting. Every meeting is a chance to communicate.”

He gave the example of the Congressional hearings for the Big Three car makers in December. “A senator asked a simple question; are all of your car lines profitable? The CEO responded by saying ‘at what level do you mean, EBITDA or what?” Gutierrez contended that the simple question required a simple answer, not a response one would give to a financial analyst.

But it is with this notion of simplifying answers that the Secretary went off course. He said, “In the corporate world, we mistake complexity for sophistication. There is a beauty in simplicity; it is an art and a science.” He touted the Bush Administration’s daily, one page report with talking points on every policy maker’s desk by 8:30AM as a model for the corporate sector. “Thousands of Administration people received this update; each message point had a headline and we were always on the same page.”

Professor Jerry Swerling of University of Southern California asked the key question on many Page members’ minds. “Don’t you think there is risk in over-simplifying? Don’t some issues require serious debate?” The Secretary’s response was, “People can’t admire something they don’t understand. I am not suggesting taking away substance. People in companies don’t know why things are happening. It is everybody’s business why we are closing a factory or making an acquisition. It has to be expressed in simple, basic language.”

It is inspiring to hear that the Secretary sees the value of PR people at the top table, advising the CEO. But we must bring to that management group the complexity of our world, the views of stakeholders including critics, because true engagement depends upon substantive discussion. It is a mistake to rely excessively upon simplicity. One should aim for consistency without robbing the process of integrity. This can be achieved only by an extensive debate of the issues.

I agree with Secretary Gutierrez that information should be conveyed with the context and language to which audiences can most easily relate. We must avoid jargon that creates a barrier to understanding. But PR is not a command and control amplifier that conveys simple messages consistently. That’s advertising. PR informs, listens, and facilitates dialogue among stakeholders to achieve enlightenment.