Years ago, I wrote some plays. In the theater of my head, I'm seeing the CCO's possible conversation with the CEO, in the office, door closed, maybe after hours, early in the game that became a crisis:
“Okay, boss, you depend on me to be smart for you on at least two things-- the way information about you and the company flows – and the perceptions of our critical stakeholders.
“As well intended as we may be in having this person connected to the company and especially directly associated with you, I can see this taking off in the social media as well as the Wall Street Journal and major media we're used to dealing with, and I can only see a very bad outcome if that happens.
“Truth is that everybody can know just about everything all the time. We have very little control of a whole lot of information. There are no secrets. It's all transparent. Google, Facebook, Twitter all have eyes on us. The blogs are full of folks who love to go after companies and company executives.
“What our stakeholders perceive is our reality. It's our judge and jury. It drives investors and the company's reputation. It outruns the facts. You know what? I got that from you. You're the pace setter here. You personally put your stamp on our ethics guide. You're perceived as the man, the one who's pulling HP in the right direction.
“I have to be honest with you, chief, or I'm not who you need to have in my job. I'm saying this person is a very bad risk. I could write the story that could come out if this relationship goes forward. It can be entirely innocent, but her background is a problem. I can imagine -- and the legal guys should be telling you this -- what could happen if this got into some charge against you personally, or if somebody like Gloria Allred did what she did in Tiger Woods' case. I know that sounds extreme, but you need to let us find a way to conclude this person's relationship with the company. We can handle the questions now, if we get any, but we need to do it now.
“And of course there's the board. We've got a board that's supersensitive. It's a new deal but an old lesson. What's the old saying, once burned, twice shy? If we don't take care of this now, we have a board that won't be shy to come after us if we put them in a compromised position."
In my imagined scene, the actor playing the CEO turns in his chair and looks at the CCO, without responding. The CCO takes silence for dismissal, opens the door and says before he leaves:
“Okay, boss, I can see I'm up to my neck in the water so I'll get out of here. Just know this: (a) I'm serious about this, (b) I care about you and the company's situation, and (c) I'm in the boat with you and ready to help as always if you value my input and enable me to do my job, which you've set the standard for."
My little drama is to make a point (beyond exposing why I never made it as a playwright), which is that CCOs can have tough jobs but they can and need to do them. For all I know, Hurd's communications folks tried to warn him and it didn't work out. So why was it left to the very smart consultant from APCO to lay it out to the board late in the game and maybe lead the board toward CEO severance?
And to anybody who doubts the reality of a CCO having the right stuff to deliver truth to the powerful: think about Arthur Page and Ed Block and Larry Foster and...(uh oh, now I'm stepping onto thin ice)...and all of you in Page who knock me out with your wisdom, your moxie and, yes, your influence and your victories—most of which is known only to you and your CEOs.
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