Do Your PR Mavens Really Have Your Back?

Do your PR mavens have your back? Or are they shielding you from more good than bad? Jeff Sonnenfeld weighs in.

Forty years ago, if I wanted to reach a CEO of a major firm, I could often get a direct phone number and call at 7 a.m. to find them free, unguarded and eager to talk. Those days are gone.

PR people and GCs are often called “flaks,” as they seek to protect corporate reputations the way military flak jackets shield soldiers in battle. If the jackets are too tight, however, they do more harm than good by restraining nimble responses. The pathologies that follow overprotection involve denial, deflection, tardy reflexes to misconduct, tin ears to consumer grassroots initiatives, over-lawyering, bland word parsing, attacks on the legitimacy of critics, denial, obfuscation, etc.

Observers may wonder whether this practice contributed to the crisis management challenges of otherwise great firms. In reality, the haze of battle conceals more complicated dynamics in the context of each situation, where good guys have been intentionally conflated with bad guys, and international regulations have hobbled leaders from immediate transparency.

Thus, some legal protection and careful phrasing are often vital. Rapacious plaintiff lawyers, short-term activist hedge funds and grandstanding politicians intentionally blur the truth, creating legal traps and career jeopardy while endangering shareholder wealth. At the same time, the history of Chiquita, Takata, the U.S. tobacco industry, some opiate makers, BP, Equifax, Enron, Worldcom, Global Crossing, Drexel, Facebook and Volkswagen remind us that the motives of corporate titans are not always pure, nor their messages always clear.

In fact, the field of corporate communications is barely a century old, and its controversial pioneering spinmeisters—the boastful Edward L. Bernays and Ivy Lee of the 1920s—were critiqued for deceptive practices and intentional manipulation of mass communications even as they were credited with refined techniques of propaganda and psychological research.

Now “professionalized” with degrees, trade associations, journals and protocols, their occupation is also rife with clunky orthodoxies, “run-of-show” requirements for hit-and-run speeches, barricaded bosses and other overprotection from swelling armies of pervasive PR platoons. This bureaucratization of PR demands that CEOs battle their own flaks to ensure:

1) Authenticity and warmth: Antiseptic, scripted, teleprompter-driven comments and rehearsed video pronouncements are uniformly disastrous for the boss.

2) Accuracy and alertness: Panicked PR flaks block the magnitude and urgency of grassroots campaigns and viral attacks, leading to misguided, delayed responses. Messengers should be encouraged to bring bad news without worrying they will be shot.

3) Cost and convenience: Spending more doesn’t equate to spending smarter. Beware of large-budget proposals aimed at protecting the firm; less pricey strategic online and in-person exposure can be far more effective.

4) Collaboration and image: Image handlers frequently make CEOs appear arrogant or rigid by demanding unknowable details about spontaneous events or missing opportunities to mix with peers and constituents.

5) Feedback and learning: PR flaks and many general counsel fear CEOs will melt if they are criticized rightly or wrongly by shareholders, media, investors or legislators, but leaders need to hear how they are being interpreted to know how to adjust their practice to improve performance.

Academic critic Jonathan Haidt has challenged the “coddling of the American mind,” as students are insulated from criticism and learning from public failure. That same spotlight of scrutiny might be directed toward the C-Suite, where top executives are often coddled by palace guards who insulate them from the learning opportunity raw, unscripted face-to-face exchanges with customers, employees, investors and regulators afford.

Read more: Bad Negotiations Shouldn’t Sink Your Business Relationships


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