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Penn State Live
|Page Society Panel - Ambrose-Martin-Harris|
PAGE SOCIETY PANEL - AMBROSE - MARTIN - HARRIS
DICK MARTIN: Hello I’m Dick Martin, as Executive Vice President of Public Relations for AT&T, I occupied the same desk as the man who’s business philosophy we will explore today. Arthur W. Page was Vice President of Public Relations at AT&T from 1927-1946. He was the first public relations counsel who made senior office of a large corporation, and in fact he served on the AT&T board of directors. While his predecessor in the job at AT&T was unapologetically a publicity man, Page had already enjoyed a successful career as a magazine editor and advisor to such people as the president of the United States. He was hired because he had a unique perspective on the conduct of business in a democratic society, he summed it up when he wrote, ‘all business in a democratic society begins with public permission and exists by public approval.’ Now in those few words, and the practices and principles that flow from them, Page set the standard for all who followed him at AT&T and at many other companies. Those principles sound simple, almost self-evident—tell the truth, prove it with action, listen to the customer, manage for tomorrow, remain cool calm and good humored, and conduct public relations as if the whole company depended on it. Well the may sound simple, but living up to those principles in the real world is not always easy. To help us understand their practical implications, we’re going to talk to men and women who have walked in Page’s shoes. Adele Ambrose is Executive Vice President of Investor Relations and Investor Communications for AT&T Wireless. Tom Martin is Vice President of Corporate Communications for the ITT Corporation. Steve Harris recently retired as Vice President of Communications for General Motors.
So we’re talking about the Page Principles and the first principle is tell the truth. Well duh, what’s so hard about telling the truth?
HARRIS: In the complexity of the world we live in today, it’s not always as easy as I think it would seem. Obviously it’s the touchstone for everything that we do but the truth at any given time depending on the dynamics of a situation can change.
DICK MARTIN: You mean there are different versions of the truth?
HARRIS: Not different versions but information is layered in as we get into complex issues and things that are dynamic and changing as you’re getting new information. So you have to constantly be checking back to see where you’re at in the environment you’re operating in and in the situation. And I think the goal is to always make sure that you’re telling them, to the best of your knowledge, the most accurate story that you have at that point in time.
DICK MARTIN: Isn’t it inconsistent with your job as an advocate to tell the truth? You’re supposed to put the best spin you can on it aren’t you?
AMBROSE: Yes, and I think it is not at all inconsistent because I think our job is well known, we’re working for the company, our job is to position it in the most positive way but you have to include the bad with the good I believe in order to have creditability if you’re talking about the media or your customer because they’re going to eventually find out and then you will look as if you were dishonest. But I think a reporter or a customer knows who you work for and knows that your job is to position things positively for the company.
DICK MARTIN: So it’s okay to spin?
AMBROSE: Well, it depends on how you define spin. I think if you’re talking about positives that are true and you’re representing a true story I think that’s fair and that’s true.
DICK MARTIN: How about dodging questions? Isn’t that a form of lying?
TOM MARTIN: I think it can be but I mean, think of an example this way, one of the things that companies typically do is try to find ways to minimize the amount of taxes they pay. There’s nothing illegal about that, there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily. But you have some companies that have gone as far as having paintings that are bought in one city, being shipped—empty boxes being shipped to another state to avoid paying taxes. Clearly that’s wrong, and I think one of the things in terms of the truth, I think the chief public relations officer has to have a good relationship with the CEO to be able to figure it out, the things that are legal and appropriate from those things that are clearly wrong. To be able to say, wait a minute—what are we doing here, and what are the consequences of that going to be? But let’s say a company is thinking about moving its corporate headquarters to Bermuda, with the same intent—now that’s legal and that’s acceptable but I think someone has to be there saying, what will the reaction of our stakeholders be to that and is that really the right thing to do. So it’s not always just the truth. Something that’s true or false, it’s also, what are the perceptions going to be among the stakeholders and the organization.
HARRIS: I think a line that we always come up to that’s most difficult is, what’s the difference between telling the truth and telling everything that you know. There’s definitely a difference, I think the key is not to ever say anything that you don’t honestly believe is accurate and truthful and that you can live with for a long time. That doesn’t mean that every single detail and nuance that you’re aware of has to be made public at that point in time.
AMBROSE: Suppose you’re in the middle of a discussion on a deal, things change so often that if you say too much, it can end up being false a few hours later and you end up misleading people unintentionally and that’s where…that’s the beauty of the no comment where you’re really not giving any information and you’re not misleading. Because in a situation where you don’t’ know what the end result is going to be, to comment about something in the middle of it can actually be very misleading. If you have a good relationship with the media—and you should if you’re following the Page Principles—you need to be aware that you have a responsibility to that reporter and to your organization to be careful about what you say. So you can’t get Clintonesque about it, you can’t say you know, we have no plans or no immediate plans or whatever when you’re kind of shading the truth. I think you have to be very careful about that because I believe it comes back to bite you if you mislead someone.
TOM MARTIN: One example that we deal with all the time is the decision of an executive to leave. Now as we all know, in some cases that’s not a decision the executive has made himself or herself—they’re being asked to resign. Would it be more truthful of us to say, the individual is departing the organization because of their spectacularly terrible performance in the last eighteen months—or is it better to simply say they’re leaving to pursue other interests? Both things are true, which is more fair to the individual? And what is really required of our constituencies to know about that situation? If they’re leaving for malfeasants or improprieties or some financial irregularities, then we obviously have a responsibility to disclose that. But if they’re not, isn’t it more fair to the person to say less than we could otherwise say? So I think, we’re always wrestling with these balancing acts and that’s part of what I think our role as stewards of truth is all about.
AMBROSE: And I think looking at the consequences of how much of the truth you talk about and really determining, are you hurting your customers or your shareholders or your employees by saying you know, this person is leaving to pursue other interests. I think that’s something you have to constantly ask yourself to make sure you really are doing your job in the right way and operating with integrity.
TOM MARTIN: I can think of an instance in a major retailer…when one of the division heads left and the CEO told way too much, and it actually ended up being bad for the organization. So you can say more than you need to say and it can have its own ramifications.
HARRIS: One simple rule, if you have to start doing a lot of explaining of what you said, you know you’re in trouble. If it doesn’t stand on its own and people understand it readily and accept it and understand the logic of it, then you know that you have not quite hit the mark as far as telling the truth and making it transparent for those that you’re dealing with.
TOM MARTIN: But I think that clearly as public relations professionals, we really do have a responsibility to manage the way information is disclosed. And a perfect example of that, we all deal with plant closures; now in many cases we are told in advance of employees being told that the intent is to close a plant. Now, it is part of our job is to manage the way that announcement is handled and it has to be managed in a certain way. The labor unions have to be told in a certain way in some cases governments have to be told in a certain way, the employees have to be told in a certain way. It’s not our job to run out with that news and sort of breathlessly proclaim this plant is going to close and not think about the ramifications of that. It’s our responsibility to manage the different constituencies and the timing of that information as it comes out. Now some might say, well you knew about this two weeks ago why couldn’t you be more truthful? You are being truthful, but you’re managing the release of information in a way that takes into account all of the different constituencies that you serve.
DICK MARTIN: And what do you do internally? Do you bring those interests to management and ask them to access the impact?
AMBROSE: I think if you have a seat at the table, you are able to really get involved in the decision that’s being considered and really give advice about the impact it could have on various constituencies—whether you’re talking about your employees or the media or you know, the community. And I think that’s very key, because as we all know, if you kind of try to stop a decision when it’s towards the end of the game, it doesn’t work. And then it’s much, much harder and it annoys the people who you’re sitting round the table with as opposed to being part of the early process and that’s why you know, the more you have your senior PR officer at the table the better, for the company.
HARRIS: It’s very rare that you get a single source of information, especially in a corporate environment. Usually things are worked on collaboratively and a number of staffs and individuals are involved. I think if somebody came to me and one individual asked me to do something just on their information alone that I would be suspicious of it. I would check with other people, I would verify that other people are comfortable and that the other constituencies that are going to be impacted by this within the company and outside the company are aware of where we’re going here.
TOM MARTIN: Everybody within an organization is looking out for the particular bias or the particular area they represent, it’s perfectly appropriate for the chief legal counsel to be thinking about the company’s legal liabilities and exposure, that’s the job of that individual. It’s right for the person who’s the CFO to be thinking about the financial implications of a decision. I think our role crosses over many of those boundaries because what we’re trying to do is, we’re trying to take each of those and we’re managing the reputation of the organization. We’re managing relationships with a lot of different areas. And so we have to respect those different functions but also bring our own point of view into it and I think in the best situations and the best organizations, we’re taken just as seriously as the legal advisors, as the financial advisors, as the HR advice, we are considered to be one more voice through which decisions are made.
AMBROSE: I agree with that. It’s not as much a science as maybe being a CFO but I think our job really is to interpret how some of the various publics are going to respond to a particular action or decision and if you’re doing your job well, that is respected as much as the role of CFO or the HR person or the chief counsel.
TOM MARTIN: If you think about it, these are fascinating times, if you look at some of the spectacular failures; we as professionals can usually see when the advice of the PR counsel wasn’t taken. Because you can see when an organization is making essentially a legally driven strategy. And almost always those fail or at least the ultimate outcome and in some cases they fail spectacularly and the CEO resigns and it’s a huge issue and lately, some of them even go to jail. And I think if you think about the role that we play, in the best situation, we try to take that legal consideration and others but make sure that people are thinking about the court of public opinion at the time them make these decisions and not simply thinking about things from a financial perspective or a legal perspective.
HARRIS: Touching on that same thing, I think most CEOs today, definitely know when communications is done importantly; they know the downfall, the impact, the negativity of that. They may not always know what the right things to do from a communications stand point are but they definitely know the downside of doing the wrong thing and so that’s I think, brought the public relations communications people to the absolute forefront of what’s going on in major corporations today.
AMBROSE: I agree. And if you look at the turnover rate for CEOs these days, that’s another thing that has changed. There’s a very high turnover rate and part of their reasons for success really has to do with; are they managing those publics correctly and we can help a lot in that area.
HARRIS: I would say that basically, every CEO that I’ve ever connected with—those first demand or request of yours that you get more than your fair share of positive coverage for a company, its products, its peoples, its policies and that sort of thing. And so that’s there, always underlying and depending on the individual they either keep it in check a little bit or it becomes exaggerated. But I think the really good CEOs understand that it works both ways and that why it’s appropriate and understood they’re going to be demanding on that side of the ledger. They have to understand that it’s a constant…it’s a continuum and the coverage ebbs and flows from positive to negative and in between and as long as they’re reasonable as far as understanding that there’s going to be some of both then I think we can deal with that. It’s one of the things that’s all going to be positive and just can’t deal with any negativity at all.
TOM MARTIN: I mean, we’ve all had the uncomfortable morning after when the bad Wall Street Journal article airs and it seems like it’s rare for it to be a good Wall Street Journal article even when it is. But very few CEOs have failed because of an article in Fortune or an article in the Wall Street Journal, that’s not the reason they fail. And it’s not the reason they succeed—positive or negative. What they succeed or fail on is based almost always on decisions they make about, should they merge with this company or should they take on this amount of debt or should they take this action with employees. It’s the actions they take, that make their careers either go up or down. So fortunately I think many enlightened CEOs now, are beginning to realize that and they do focus less on, can you get me a good article in the newspaper than—can you help me improve the understanding of our employees with the strategy…
HARRIS: Change the culture.
TOM MARTIN: Help change the culture. Exactly. Excellent way to say it.
AMBROSE: It’s a price of entry to get good media coverage or to manager media coverage. But I think the best CEOs will expect more. They really expect you to bring your judgment to the table and help influence the decisions that they need to consider and I agree, those are the things that they’re going to be judged at. And their board is going to judge them on and that kind of decides whether they, you know, survive and stay and do a good job or whether they go, and are short lived.
DICK MARTIN: What do we mean by ‘prove it with action?’ And the question that occurs to me is, what actions are we talking about? Are we talking about the actions the public relations department takes on its own, or are we talking about the actions the company takes? Which set of actions is it?
HARRIS: I think cleary it’s what the company does. Communications only articulates and gets exposure for the actions of the company that prove that its strategy, that its vision, that its intent is correct. We have a chairman at General Motors who—his phrase is very similar to Arthur Page’s phrase was, ‘deeds not words.’ And that was his mantra and that’s what he felt…he always wanted to do something and hopefully—he didn’t want to ever have to talk about it. Only if it was absolutely necessary to do something around it so he felt that we should be biased totally towards actions as opposed to talking about what we’re going to do or talk about what we did, cause we should be putting our energy into moving on to the next things that we need to work on.
DICK MARTIN: You all agree with that?
AMBROSE: I do, and I think very often it can be something that—in my case I was thinking of an instance after 9/11 where we were trying to decide what we should do for customers and we made a decision to really kind of go overboard in wireless cell phone service and people were trying to reach a loved one or they were upset and they’d talk for hours and hours to someone. We just decided to give people a couple of days completely free and I was part of that decision as were a lot of the people around the senior table. And we also decided not to say a word about it—there were some people advocating to go to the news media, talk it up. It would have been the wrong decision. We just let our customers…we told our customers and we let them discover it and that way, the talk of our good deed spread. But it spread naturally and we didn’t do a thing about it.
HARRIS: When people discover something, it’s always a lot better than when they were told it or something. When they discover it on their own I think they internalize it much better and have a much stronger feeling about it than something they read or told or something in some other method.
AMBROSE: Generally, consumers are more media savvy these days than years ago and so they tend not to take that at its face and I think if they can discover it as a customer or an employee, it’s more impressive because it seems more natural and it’s an honest action of good character as opposed to a spin.
HARRIS: Something that really sort of works against us that at least in most industries I think, the industries have gotten so competitive that you are quick to want to make sure people are aware of an action from a competitive standpoint and it’s kind of like, can you top this? So I think sometimes organizations go out prematurely on the basis of, we want to put the stake in the ground first before one of our competitors puts the stake in the ground. And that causes you I think, to get out there sometimes a little ahead of the deeds with some words and sometimes you get caught in that because you’re not able—it’s very early in gestation period and that never really turns out the way that you had hoped it was going to be. Or somebody comes up with something that’s even a little better than yours and suddenly you look a little worse off for the comparison.
TOM MARTIN: What we all realize is that the truth will out. People—customers know how a product performs much better than anyone else because they use it everyday. If you mislead them through advertising, messaging, or other means, they know the truth. And so it’s much better to have your messaging about a product or a service consistent with the truth. Focus on getting a product or service better, and they’ll know that too. The same with employees, you can put whatever you want in an employee newsletter or television program—employees know how they’re being treated in the workplace. They know what’s working, what isn’t working in terms of policy. So it’s much better to have the messaging consistent with truth and with the actions because people know it anyway and so it’s simply much more credible and much more effective to tie the messaging to the actual reality.
HARRIS: That is so true. I had a professor back in college who had one short phrase that I try to keep in mind all the time cause it’s really proven true so many times and that is - Mr. Mark getting by that he meant all public knows Mr. Market knows. They know what’s going on and you’re going to be found out so there’s no sense not dealing in the truth and not waiting for the actual deeds to manifest themselves before trying to get ahead of them—hype them prematurely.
DICK MARTIN: Was Page saying then that the PR department ought to be running the company?
HARRIS: Well I don’t think he said that, but I think he said that it was a key element and that the company in general should be run with the precepts of good communication and good understanding of your publics and what you’re trying to accomplish as a total business entity has to be kept in mind and I think, he felt that the communications area held most of those types of principles that should be adhered to by every staff within the company, by every operating unit. And if you kept those good principles in mind, regardless of what area you were in, then you would run a good company. You’re going to provide good results and be a benefit to society.
TOM MARTIN: And Page did describe public relations as an effort not a department and I think he did feel—at least from what I’ve read—that the company needed to think of it as a total effort, not simply a few people in one department. I’ve heard many people in our field say that reputation management should encompass more than just public relations. That reputation management should encompass human resources and marketing and other functions and I think you could make a pretty good case for that. But I think regardless of where things fit organizationally it is important that everybody be thinking about the public relations ramifications of their actions whether they’re in that department or not.
AMBROSE: And if you look at the Page Principles I think in some ways they’re more relevant than ever in looking at really keeping in mind all of your external constituencies. Companies who have sort of had these spectacular financial failures this year and last were overly focused on the investors for example and their stock price and they forgot about their customers or their employees who in the end blew the whistle on them. So I think in that way, the idea that you’re a multi-leg stool—whether it’s 3 or 4 depending on how you count the constituencies, you need to keep them in mind in a really successful company will do that and those that are, are doing it.
DICK MARTIN: How do you balance the interest of multiple stakeholders, multiple customer groups?
HARRIS: I think it’s real trial…trial and error situation. You try to weigh those things going in—whether it’s a communications program or a marketing program or a product decision. But I think it’s very difficult to have enough information and with the fragmentation of interest groups today and since the advent of the internet and instant messaging, I think of these smart mobs which are small groups of people that can have a high degree of impact very quickly. You just have to be more flexible, adaptable and able to react quicker than we ever have in the past. I don’t think there’s any silver bullet for assuring yourself that you’re not going to step into controversy with an action. Monthly, I think it happens to us if not daily or weekly that we do something that we think is well thought out and we understand the ramifications of it and we get a reaction that we really didn’t expect.
TOM MARTIN: But I think it’s important to keep in mind the…two things—1) to keep it as one consistency. If you’re telling the same story to the different audiences and it’s a story based on credibility, truth and actions—which ties back into the Page Principles—if you’re doing that consistently then I think you’re going to have fewer problems. The other thing I would say is if you’re stakeholders understand the relationships that can be to your advantage. I’ll give you one example, one of the things that our customers tell us—they’re willing to pay a fair price for our products. What frustrates them more than anything is getting it on time. They’re happy to pay you, but just give me the product on time. So when we focus with our employees what makes a difference to customers, it’s things like on time delivery. Shortening cycle times for our products, getting things to market quicker. That’s what customers want. And if you can do that, they will give you more of the business than the competitor, and your investors are going to like that result so, I think it’s finding the moments of truth with your customers that really makes the difference.
HARRIS: I think a complicating issue and one that I’m sure Arthur Page was aware of but it’s certainly much more relevant now than it would have been when he was active and that is the global aspect of the business today. Your customers are all over the globe, you’re manufacturing operations often are all over the globe and so dealing with these different cultures and these different expectations and these different requirements and traditions and all the various aspects of dealing with a multitude of people, complicate this issue because not everybody perceives things exactly the same way. So this issue of consistency at the time is trying to have a consistent tonality to an organization and an umbrella message, if you will, is increasing difficult in what is an ever increasing more global, function within these more global companies.
TOM MARTIN: That’s an excellent point because I think of China, we’ve got 20% of our employees are in China and an increasing amount of our business and a lot of our customers. And there are different cultural norms in China than in other parts of the world, as there are in all countries. And for example in China it’s quite acceptable to give out the red envelopes. And red envelopes are considered in that culture, a way of thanking someone. Well, we’ve had to define in our culture, in our company’s culture, that those kinds of gifts are not appropriate. And so even if that means redefining how we view the world, we feel that you have to have a common set of—a code of conduct that applies to all cultures and; you have to make some balancing acts that way.
DICK MARTIN: Who decides which customer expectations should be ignored. For example, many companies are giving homosexual couples the same benefits they give heterosexual couples even though a lot of very sincere people think it’s wrong.
HARRIS: Well initially like you mentioned, ultimately it falls on the shoulders of the CEO. These issues come before us as organizations all the time and there are growth periods of them—gestation periods if you will—to where they reach sort of a critical mass and you need to make a decision as to what you as an organization are going to do. And going right back to the Page principle, well hopefully what you’re going to do is the right thing. Is the trivially honest thing that makes the most sense? That makes common sense and it is in the best interest of the greatest number of people and also in a certain sense, dovetails with where society is moving in general and so you need to remain contemporary as a corporation and be sensitive to what’s going on in society around you and what people are thinking and what they think is fair and appropriate. Doesn’t mean it’s always going to be popular because there are some decisions that are not popular but like I said, there’s virtually no decision you can take that is going to be unanimously popular so you just have to accept that and do what you think is right and in the best interest of your employees or whatever constituents you’re dealing with.
DICK MARTIN: What should CEOs expect from their PR counselors?
TOM MARTIN: I think a person who is able to be courageous because many times you’re going against the grain. I work in a company that’s dominated by engineers and financial people and many times the things I bring up are sort of counter to the prevailing wisdom. But I’ve also been told by my CEO, that’s why you’re here. And he said that specifically because we need another point of view that isn’t always in line to be able to make informed decisions. But it does take courage; it does take a willingness to speak up.
HARRIS: I agree with that but I think also, two other characteristics that have become increasingly important to CEOs are business understanding; and that was not always true in communications—that we had a true understanding of what the business strategy was or the goals and the true understanding of where the business is trying to go to. And the other thing is passion for the business we’re in. You can’t be sort of, totally separate from the organization if you don’t really like the organization—like the business we’re in, like the products that we produce and the services, then I don’t think you can be truly effective. But then, the point of being a good sounding board and having the courage to speak up and give that counterview—which isn’t always necessary but is necessary on certainly, occasions, I think is key to CEOs today.
AMBROSE: I think rock solid judgment is key. You know, having a good gut, I would say. And I think partly that has to be formed by looking at what’s going on, you have to really know your business but you also have to know what’s going on outside—in your competitive arena but also just in the general market that you operate in. You have to really have your eye outside the company too and I think a CEO relies on us for that.
TOM MARTIN: Harold Burson is one of the smartest guys in our profession obviously and is sort of I think a—somewhat carries on the Page ideas—but he described our function as a window. And it’s both a window from the outside in and the window from the inside out and I think about that a lot because I think we are that window and when we do our jobs best, is when we provide the biggest window we can to let the company know what the outside world—what’s going on in the outside world and also we provide a window…but the window is showing truth in both ways. It’s not interpreting truth, it’s just a big pane of glass that’s showing; this is the way it is. And I think the clearer we can keep that, the better.
AMBROSE: I think objectivity is something that’s very important. The ability to really look at something straight and make that evaluation, a CEO sort of gets myopic and times, it’s just a natural thing and very often the CFO or the legal person may be looking at things in a more narrow way. I think one of the challenges of public relations is to be able to look at it very broadly and be able to give that objective point of view.
HARRIS: There are times when the legal precedence does prevail. There are times when the financial issues do prevail, but there are also times when the communications issues prevail and a lot of our organizations…we very much have to be somewhat of an outsider once in a while, with that very much of an outside view. I can think of cases like in our industry, in the auto industries where the people tend to think very much in engineering and data type terms and we can be right but still be wrong in the minds of our consumers or regulatory organizations. We had a case one time at Chrysler with a minivan latch that had to do with a rear hatch opening—we had all sorts of data that said this was not really a problem, not significant, but yet we had some children that were injured or killed. And the emotion that surrounds an issue like that overwhelmed the data or empirical information that you have. And it’s difficult sometimes to tell somebody who is an engineer that, ‘you may be right but you’re wrong and you have to do something else.’ This is where I think in communications where measurement comes in so handy and so valuable. You’re able to track trends and perceptions and changes in attitudes about certain issues and to be able to feed that back into your organization and say, ‘I know what you’re seeing over here but you’d better look over here because something’s happening that you’re not going to be comfortable with very quickly.
AMBROSE: And I also think in public relations sometimes, several years of experience and having some war stories under your belt, it can be the most convincing way to appeal to a CEO, to overturn the decision, that you have the credibility to be able to predict what will happen based on what you know and if you can bring those stories to bear whether they’re your own or whether they’re others you’ve studied, and kind of scare them a little bit that helps sometimes.
DICK MARTIN: How do you build credibility with a CEO?
TOM MARTIN: It really ties into the Page principle—I think it’s often overlooked, the one about remaining calm and patient and good humored…however he exactly put it but I think we should be. When we’re at our best…we’re somewhat of a pressure valve that can help take off some of the pressure and things are moving so fast now and email and blackberries and cell phones. We’re all running at a pace that’s I think hard to imagine sometimes but it’s important to step back, take the deep breath, look at the other implications of a decision and I think we can provide that role. It doesn’t mean we’re necessarily the jester—court jester of the company—but we do I think, have to be a balancing act to all of the high intensity that goes on in an executive suite. I think if we do that well and help everyone take that deep breath, that’s part of our job.
AMBROSE: I think it comes from being right a couple of times. Of course you’re not going to be always right but I think the kind of credibility you build up from having a track record of giving good advice, of predicting potential outcomes that end up being true, of helping him avoid a few missteps—you build up that kind of a track record and the ability to predict potential outcomes and identify risks and plusses and I think you can earn that relatively quickly over a period of time.
HARRIS: I’d certainly agree with that, that you’re deeds—not the words—is what develops the early personal credibility and your history of where you came from and it’s different for every individual with every CEO but I think Adele just touched on—one element that I think is critical and that is anticipating. Filling in the blanks that the CEO doesn’t—isn’t aware of, doesn’t know. Bringing to his attention; moods, trends, attitude changes, shifts in what society is thinking about innovations and technology—these sorts of things. Because I think they really value someone who can help them—not so much add a little bit to what they already know but bring some information or an action or a plan together in an area that they just had never given any thought to before that could have significant impact—positive or negative into the organization.
TOM MARTIN: And I also think that, especially for students that may be watching this, it’s very important to simply understand business. To understand business in general terms, to understand financial terms that are used in business, to understand the specific industry you’re in, I think a CEO looks to the public relations counselor as someone who needs to understand business. To be able to read a balance sheet, to be able to talk…to be able to know what’s going on with the Wall Street Journal on a given day. I’ve talked to many communications students in college who never look at the Wall Street Journal. Now admittedly, you don’t expect a college junior to spend their every morning with the Wall Street Journal, but they ought to be looking at it once a week or once a month or some time in their year. And I think that’s something that we need to—as a profession—we need to help the younger in the profession more to just get more fluent in the language of business and then once they’re in a company to get fluent in the realities that CEO’s facing because it’s a hard job being a CEO and you’re making tough decisions all the time and I think understanding how hard that job is and being able to relate to their world is a key to establishing our own credibility.
AMBROSE: And I agree with that, I think seeing the role as broadly as possible is very important and it’s what makes public relations so much fun and so exciting because it is very broadly defined and I think you really do have to understand business. You have to understand your business, you have to understand what’s going on in the world and understand what your competition is doing and human nature. So I think it can be fascinating stuff but in many ways I think it’d be a lot harder than being a narrowly focused lawyer or CFO so I think that’s what makes it great but it’s also what makes it very challenging.
HARRIS: I think a key change in contemporary communications may be compared to 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago is that, it’s a much more collaborative game than it ever was. And I think young people that I see coming out—this is something that is not taught in schools so new communications people, they tend to want to develop their own star power, show their own capability, not really admit what they don’t know yet and I think really successful communications people are those that can tap into all the resources, all the expertise within an organization and bring it to bear to their particular area of active communications and I think CEOs really value communications people that have the ability to develop a relationship inside and outside and to team up and work in groups.
DICK MARTIN: But don’t many CEOs—certainly people who advise CEOs—think of public relations as spinning? Is that the way people should define public relations?
AMBROSE: I think that’s kind of a narrow and maybe an old-fashioned, negative way to look at it. I think the best CEOs look at the public relations job as one of judgment and sort of predicting outcomes and giving advice about the impact of things and communications is one of the tools and spinning may be one of the tools but I personally think that’s sort of an outdated, very narrow way to look at it and I think the best and smartest CEOs don’t do that.
TOM MARTIN: We’ve got to take responsibility for our reputation. We’ve earned the reputation, through some of our practitioners—many of whom worked in high levels of the government—that’s where we got that reputation. And they were spinning. They admit it. They’ve written books about it. I mean the whole idea was to try and shape the news. Look, we deserve whatever we got from that and I’m not saying that’s the way the profession works, it isn’t. We know that. But there are people within the profession, many of them are in the government affairs area but there are people in all parts of the profession who’ve done that. And I think we have to live with that we have to, through our own actions try to overcome that perception and when you talk to the media about their relationship with the PR people they deal with, it’s usually very healthy. But ask them about the profession as a whole and they’ll unload on all the things that are wrong with it. They do depend on us; our outside publics depend on us. And mostly we do a great job. But in some cases there’s a conscious effort to shape the truth and we have to take responsibility for that and try to find that in every way that we can.