Hint: it’s not snappy clothes, a bright smile, or a quick pen.
I’ve seen the practice of PR reduced to word-smithing, story-pitching, glad-handing, and party-planning often enough to know that many senior business executives don’t have the first idea what public relations is all about.
To many bean counters, it’s an inconsequential fringe expense. To many marketers, it’s “free advertising.” To many CEOs, it’s a way to burnish the executive image, fill a mythical pool of good will, and keep pesky reporters at bay. And to most boards, it’s someone to blame when trouble reaches headline proportions.
Ironically, the very characteristic that most CEOs rode into their corner offices is also their biggest weakness and the primary reason they need PR counsel. Effective CEOs have a laser-like focus on a handful of goals, but they have the peripheral vision of a baby bat. They spend 70% to 80% of their time in meetings with other company executives, believing it’s the only way to find out what’s actually going on in their own companies and to get everyone on the same page. But the downside is self-reinforcing executive myopia.
CEOs and their top teams don’t need someone to spin reality for others; they need someone to reveal reality to themselves. That was Marilyn Laurie’s wheelhouse. It sprung from her understanding of “great public relations.”
Great public relations is making sure you do the right thing, not that you have the right thing to say. You will always have the right thing to say, if you’ve done the right thing.
CEOs shouldn’t look for advisors whose only strength is familiarity with the whys and ways of the media. They need the counsel of someone who understands their business as well as the people running it, but isn’t held hostage to short-term goals like meeting quarterly earnings. Someone who can provide peripheral vision based on a deep understanding of the world outside the boardroom walls. Someone who can anticipate problems before they arise and help senior executives deal with them squarely, balancing the interests of all the people who contribute to their company’s success and bear the risks of its failures.
The PR industry is full of so-called “counselors” who do only half the job. Some are all about the company’s “image,” especially as manifest in its CEO. Armed with smoke, mirrors, and follow spots, they confuse celebrity with credibility. They’re all about getting attention and creating buzz. They teach executives how to answer questions not asked and how to wrap themselves in flag, motherhood, and whatever dessert is most typical of the country they happen to be visiting.
Others presume to be the company’s “conscience.” They’re all mouth and no hands. Marilyn had little patience for that. Here’s how she put it:
I’m not one of the people who likes to suggest PR should be the “conscience” of the corporation. I don’t understand setting us up as holding moral standards that are above our colleagues. But one of our jobs as senior managers is to examine and make explicit the real rules of our corporate culture. While of course we must be key members of the management policymaking team, some part of us must remain the eternal outsider — fighting total absorption into the culture, retaining a clear eye and the ability to challenge the way things are done.
We learn again and again in our lives that people seem to have an infinite capacity for self-delusion . . . to see reality not as it is, but as we wish it was. That’s our job: to keep a firm grip on reality as it is . . . to keep our grip on the employee’s view of reality — on the public’s view of reality. Our job is to bring that news to every policy and decision. That’s our contribution to protecting corporate integrity.
I don’t think it takes an MBA ethics course to know right from wrong. But it takes guts to wrestle many of these problems to the ground and do the right thing.
Many CEOs look for good writing from their PR counselors. What they should be looking for is good thinking, which is the foundation of effective counsel.
For more on what CEOs should look for in a PR leader, see my biography of Marilyn: A Woman In Charge.