Legacy Scholar Grant
The Page Center will award grants to support scholars and professionals making important contributions to knowledge, practice or public understanding of ethics and resposibility in public communication or other principles of Arthur W. Page.
Penn State Live
|Martin Interviews Marion Pinsdorf|
MARTIN: Well I think Arthur Page probably summed up everything we’ve been talking about when he said, ‘we live and die by public approval and roughly speaking, the more approval we have, the better we live.’ Ironically, the first three years of the twenty-first century began with a series of corporate scandals that had some people asking, where were the PR counselors when all this was happening? Joining me to continue this discussion is Marion Pinsdorf. Marion is a business writer who considered the issue with a senior fellow in communications at the Florida University Graduate School of Business. Marion, after WorldCom and Enron and Tyco and Adelphia and Arthur Anderson and Parmalat, isn’t it fair for some people to ask, where was PR?
PINSDORF: My feeling is that, in looking at the leadership and the egos, that many of these people, the higher they get, the more impervious they are to listening to anyone. Particularly anyone who comes in with INAUDABLE information. And certainly the public relations person, if he’s really doing his job, has to come in with bad news, INAUDABLE information. So, I think that the bottom line is that public relations have a much greater opportunity after all this. Certainly, we have seen that the court of public opinion is very swift, very decisive and very lethal. This should make people a little more open to listening to the PR council.
MARTIN: What do you think we’ve learned over the course of the last year or so about how PR people should be trained and they should prepare themselves for these positions of council?
PINSDORF: As far as education, you have to know the public relations business. You have to know the business that you’re active in, it would be dysfunctional otherwise. But, I happen to come from a liberal arts background—a history background—and I feel that the more liberally educated you are, the more context you have. The types of people you are in touch with, give you other points of view. And don’t read just the mainstream business press—read some far left, far right, whatever. My worry is, that I don’t see a lot of widely educated, courageous, strategic thinkers. I think the lack of better strategists in the PR business is what worries me.
MARTIN: What do you mean by strategists?
PINSDORF: Someone who goes in and says, have you considered this, this and this? This is what you want to do but you only have business strategy, you don’t have public opinion strategy. I did a case study of Michael Eisner at Manassas. Now, had he thought about not just the citing of the theme park, but what was going to be the local reaction? And then of course, millions saying to him, ‘you can’t say this, you can’t say that.’ Afterward they learned…even I guess you could make the case with Bill Gates—who I happen to think is one of the best and he’s a person who’s grown with his business and so on. But I don’t think he understood until the suit started, they were wonderful at product PR, but they did not understand the strategy of having to include Washington and other aspects of the publics. So I think a strategist is a tough thinker, who sees more than an immediate business plan.
MARTIN: Let’s try to relate all of this to the Page Principles. The first Page Principle is ‘tell the truth,’ seems obvious.
PINSDORF: I very much agree with that. I think that what has gotten more people into trouble has been trying to evade the truth, walk around it and the cover-ups have always been much more damaging than telling the truth up front.
MARTIN: What about the next principle, prove it with action?
PINSDORF: I think action and words have to go together. If you promise and promise and don’t do anything, that’s worse than ever making the promise at all. I think you do have to follow it up with action. Don’t send lawyers down to take care of a gas leak or something, go yourself. So I think, the whole role of the CEO visibility, particularly in a crisis situation is terribly important. So actions and words have to go together.
MARTIN: Do you think some CEOs have become too visible that they developed a sort of a cult of personality?
PINSDORF: Oh absolutely. I think not only did they develop a cult of personality; they believe their own public relations which is always dangerous. But more than that I think the good people who are now being recognized, stayed home, ran their companies, produced profits, talked to employees. I’ve been very interested in looking at the Gillette chairman. Coleman Mockler who was the chairman in the 80s, was exactly that type of person. Came out of deep religious principles, made sure that the company was only going to only present itself honestly. If he saw a mistake he went in and corrected it. When there was a problem on Wall Street—and several of my friends heard this talk—he went down, he talked to the analysts and he had such credibility and probity that it worked. Now, it’s interesting that the current chairman, Mr. Kilts of Gillette, isn’t following that model. I think that in the 90s, too many people got hooked on publicity; they got hooked on short-term profits. They did not see the consequences of their actions and hey, it’s a lot of fun to be touted. It’s a lot of fun to have the cameras in front of you all the time and I think they took their eye off their operations and I think that the higher you go in the corporation, the more liable you are to hubris…to cocoon thinking. And then if you have people around you who are basically sycophants or yes-men, you only increase your dangers so yes, absolutely. And of course the press was very keen on celebrity CEOS.
MARTIN: That gets us to another principle, managing for tomorrow. Do you think there’s been too much emphasis on short-term stock price?
PINSDORF: Oh absolutely, I think that the downsizing has been disastrous, in many cases companies have cut out whole levels of junior management meaning, who’s going to feed into senior management and buying senior management from other companies hasn’t necessarily worked. Yes, I think it was very, very short-term but I think it was driven by the market. I think it was driven by investors, particularly computer investing where the stock went down—2 points, sell. And of course the CEO is at a very vulnerable position now.
MARTIN: Listening to the customer, we seem to be at odds with only watching the stock ticker. That’s an important Page Principle.
PINSDORF: Oh yes, absolutely. I think the most egregious—not listening to the customer or not respecting the customer’s property and financial services. Tell them anything, get them to buy the stock, and of course now we’re seeing legal suits as a result. Oh yes, absolutely.
MARTIN: There was a discussion earlier about who the customer is; do you think that’s as clear as it ought to be to people?
PINSDORF: I guess that’s two definitions of customer. I mean it’s who’s going to buy your toaster, that’s pretty easy. But, Peter Drucker whom I still read enormously and respect enormously, even though he’s in his 90s said that the major company mistake is that people only look at only the 10 or 20% of the public which is their customer and not the other percentage…the huge percentage is not. And that’s where the trouble comes. So, I think focusing on customers of course is your first line, but you have to concentrate on these people who may be your trouble or the potential customers in the future.
MARTIN: What kind of advice would you give to a CEO who was thinking of hiring somebody as a PR counsel, what kind of person would you tell a CEO to look for?
PINSDORF: Well I think first, we have to have good chemistry between the people. I’m not as much for tests as much as I am sitting down talking as we are now. I think a CEO has to have the chemistry with the PR person and that is not easily defined, as you know. I think also, they have to be tough, they have to have experience, and I think when you’re a PR counsel in a company, you’re very lonely. I went from a consulting firm to Textron. At the consulting firm I had all sorts of people around me I could ask questions of, all of a sudden I was it. So you have to have a sort of independence of knowledge and independence of spirit.
MARTIN: Well what if I turn the table and I said, here’s a PR person who’s thinking of taking a job with a company, what would you advise that PR person to look for in a CEO that he or she might be working with?
PINSDORF: Well I think chemistry again. I also think a matter of, how honest is this person. I’ll use an old-fashioned word—stewardship. Is this person really interested in growing the company in its credible performance, or is he just in it for short-term profits? And it depends on your personality. A lot of people are very happy with a roller coaster ride but I think if I were looking for a job at this point—which I’m not—I think I would really look into character. Character is back.
MARTIN: You’re studying CEOs…writing a book about CEOs and their egos. What have you learned about CEOs and the change in trends?
PINSDORF: I’ve positioned the ego as; we have to have a strong, aggressive ego to rise to the top. The trouble is, when you do rise to the top, it often becomes rigid, rancid, and dysfunctional. Flaws that may not have be seen lower down in the organization now are very apparent and much more active. I guess…what I’ve seen most is the danger of the CEO who simply will not listen…he knows it, he knows it. The recent studies have identified two interesting enough Greek characters, one is Icarus who didn’t need any advice, flew too close to the sun and of course actually drowned, it wasn’t the sun that did it. And the other one is narcissism. And the more I read and study this, the more I think the narcissistic person is the most dangerous because everything is his. Everything is an extension of him. I think a good CEO will give credit where it’s due, this person will never give credit because it’s his. I think there are some very, very solid, good CEOs out there. I think that the cycle is changing and if you read the business press, you’ll see they’re looking for credibility, character, and integrity. They’re much less willing to buy a CEO than they were in the past. So I’m not totally pessimistic, I think sometimes the cycle has to really bottom out as perhaps it has in the last eighteen months. One reporter calls it the business pages are now like a crime blotter. I think that that’s when you see change. It’s too bad you have to go through that searing, cauterizing experience but that’s when you see change.
MARTIN: Now, Arthur Page practiced public relations in the 1920s, wasn’t that a much simpler age when decisions were much easier and life was far less complex than it is today?
PINSDORF: Yes, I think that there’s certain verities such as we’ve discussed which can be there forever. But—and I mean this with no disrespect for Mr. Page—but I think he was with…in an ideal time; he was with an ideal company that believed these principles. It’s very hard now—I think it’s mean, it’s tough, your word will not be accepted the way it was with Page. The whole idea of corporate citizenship I think is not the factor that it was. You had the experience of companies being very active in communities and all of a sudden they disappeared. So I think you have to look at Page, see him as a great thinker, for his time, but how do you apply that today. You have to make that translation.
MARTIN: Okay, do you have anything that we should have talked about that we didn’t?
PINSDORF: I’ve spent the last 16 years with 30-something managers, all getting their MBAs and there are some incredibly good people there, but there are a lot of people with a sense of entitlement, they don’t know how much they don’t know. So I think you’re going to have a very, very difficult workplace to negotiate and to manage these days. And also I think we have to go back to the idea of some mentoring. Whether it’s ethical mentoring or it’s a sheer business mentoring. And some of these students have run into unbelievable, crushing circumstances and I don’t mean just a hard time getting a job.
MARTIN: Thank you Marion. Well whether you think businesses in Page’s day were more enlightened or just as venal as the worst examples of recent years, there’s no question that his world moved more slowly. But his principles endure and in a way they can help us focus on what really matters in the rush of the new century.