Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Who Does The CEO Listen To For PR Advice?

The simple answer is probably no one!

Which begs the question, why not?

Some experts have theorized that formerly successful companies have not had enough go wrong to maintain their so-called "crisis management skills." There is some validity to that concept. That's what table-top exercises are good for.

More likely, the same old reasons why organizations fail to anticipate and plan for crises is still the reasons so many "good" companies and other organizations get caught flatfooted.

"Nothing bad is gonna happen on my watch. . ." or "Nothing bad is gonna happen to my company." "That kinda stuff happens to the competition, but not to us."

In workshops and training sessions I ask the audience to picture the CEO bent over at the waist with his or her head buried deep in the sand. Now, I ask, what part of the anatomy is most exposed? That is followed by a snicker and a smile on most faces in the room. Then I conclude, "That's where you'll get it if you are not prepared."

Ever heard the preacher talk about "bad things happen to good people?" Bad things happen to good companies and good organizations of all kinds. They used to happen and it took hours or days before many people heard about it and you had hours or sometimes days to figure out what to do and say.

Then came the 24-hour newsroom and the 24-hour news cycle, followed by the internet and now blogs and Twitter.

Today, you may not have but a few minutes, let alone hours or days, to decide what action to initiate and what to say when something goes wrong.

Since the Institute for Crisis Management was born in the late 80's, we've always had to deal with owners, executives, leaders, CEOs and Presidents that were in denial and then paralyzed when something unexpected happened. We learned to deal with that.

But, today, its compounded by the decision to cut back on communications/PR staff and even worse to move the head of communications/PR to another department and cut off direct, daily interaction between the head of the organization and his/her communication counsel. How effective is the remaining PR person if she has to make an appointment to see the top decision maker?

I was the number two communications person in a Wing Information Office in the Air Force and Air Force Reserve in the late 60's and early 70's. Our office was next door to the Wing Commander -- one was a one-star general and the second boss was a two-star general. The door was always open between our offices.

Then I was Press Secretary for a U.S. Senator years later and my desk was ten feet from the door to the boss' office and rarely was the door closed between us.

Today, we have corporate clients with the head of public relations reporting to the Vice-President of Human Resources and another large chemical company with the PR staff in a separate building. Until recently a university client kept the PR department a floor away from the President. That has changed, with the director of communications just steps away from the top decision maker's office.

If you are a communicator and have been isolated from the top decision maker, ask yourself why? If you have the experience and nerve, ask the boss why? So often, executives see their PR staff as promoters of the organization. That is an important role for the comms staff, but in today's world, the more important role is to be problem solvers, just like the legal counsel. If you can't sell yourself to your boss as more than a promoter of the organization, then you need to find another place to work and perhaps another line of work.

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