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Rolling the Dice

In Snake Eyes, Brian DePalma’s current movie thriller starring Nicolas Cage, the plot revolves around the assassination of a Secretary …

In Snake Eyes, Brian DePalma’s current movie thriller starring Nicolas Cage, the plot revolves around the assassination of a Secretary of Defense during a professional boxing match held in an Atlantic City casino.

In full view of 14,000 fight fans and scores of TV cameras recording the title bout for cable, the defense-cutting cabinet officer is cut down by what initially appears to be a lone Palestinian assailant. It gives nothing away from a tautly made DePalma film to reveal that the terrorist is a mere front for a clever conspiracy led by-are you ready?-the CEO of a defense contractor who sees his air defense missile contract jeopardized by the crusading public official.

Said to be a devotee of the late Alfred Hitchcock, DePalma is a master of the macabre suspense genre, yet seems to have learned nothing from the master about plot premise. His defense contractor CEO appears to have never solicited support for his program from key members of Congress, let alone the company’s local congressman. Local representatives are notorious for going to great lengths to keep factories going in their district. But there’s no lobbying or public relations campaign for this CEO. When the program develops a technological glitch, what’s his first remedy? Bump off a cabinet secretary! (And judging by the high-tech, high-bribe machinations required to pull this operation off, one wonders how this expense would be itemized internally, let alone accounted for by the company auditors.)

Never mind. The concept of businessmen behaving badly has been part of the entertainment zeitgeist for some time. According to Timothy Lamer and Alice Lynn O’Steen of the Media Research Center, a media watchdog group in Alexandria, VA, media-particularly television—-shows a cynicism toward business that it does not show toward any other job or profession. MRC researchers analyzed 17 weeks of prime time fare over a 26-month period covering 1995, 1996, and 1997 during which TV businessmen committed more crimes than those of any other occupation, 29.2 percent versus 9.7 percent for career criminals. TV businessmen represented more than 30 percent of the murderers versus career criminals—the next highest group-with 9.8 percent.

TV businessmen are also more likely to cheat than to contribute to society. Of the 731 business characters, 210, or 28.7 percent, cheated to get ahead. The way in which small versus big business was portrayed varied greatly. Big business types cheat 46 percent of the time compared to less than 17 percent for small businessmen.

This is not to say that popular entertainment doesn’t occasionally get it right. The film version of Barbarians at the Gate comes to mind for capturing the wackiness of the unalloyed avarice that permeated the deal making in the RJR Nabisco takeover that netted then-CEO F. Ross Johnson an obscene $56 billion. James Garner played Johnson far more sympathetically than he deserved. Here’s a case where art could not imitate life without appearing to go over the top.

CEOs may be forgiven for shrugging their shoulders and thinking, so what has this got to do with me? OK, you may be a stand-up guy who’s faithful to his wife and kids and good to his employees—-well, the ones who weren’t downsized. But consider that the marketplace of news, factoids, and entertainment shapes people’s expectations and perceptions. Like it or not, this is the ooze through which you as a CEO must paddle your corporate reputation canoe.

Assuming you need to navigate a sound course when it comes to managing your company’s reputation, we enclose with this issue a survey questionnaire prepared with the assistance of Yankelovich Partners that may help. We hope you will take a moment to fill it out and let us know to what degree this issue is important to you.

About J.P. Donlon

J.P. Donlon
J.P. Donlon is Editor Emeritus of Chief Executive magazine.