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The New PR Challenges for Business
Help Management Soften the Edges; Open the Lines of Communications

By: Andy Marken

In his nearly 25 years in the advertising/public relations field, Andy has been involved with a broad range of corporate and marketing activities. Prior to forming Marken Communications in mid-1977, Andy was vice president of Bozell & Jacobs and its predecessor agencies. During his 12 years with these agencies, he developed and coordinated a wide variety of highly visible and successful promotional campaigns and activities for clients. A graduate of Iowa State University, Andy received his Bachelor's Degree with majors in Radio & Television and Journalism. Widely published in the industry and trade press, he is an accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

"Wherever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision."
--Peter F. Drucker
Whether it was the financial maneuverings of Enron, Anderson, and Tyco; the tortured merger battle of HP/Compaq or airline management's tin cup of poverty -- being the head of a publicly held company has lost its glamour. The press has taken a new and more aggressive look at the value and credibility of senior management. "Star power" is no longer popular as stakeholders increasingly demand responsible and responsive management.

Answering this call is a new breed of senior managers who will be challenged by all of the organization's publics - government, employees, shareholders, communities, customers and partners. They will challenge the total spectrum of public relations efforts and activities - internally and externally.

The new breed include people like Harry Kraemer of Baxter Int., Henry McKinnel of Pfizer, Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric, IBM's Samuel Palmisano and Joseph Tucci of EMC. Firms like Intel and Microsoft have shifted to the softer style of management with Craig Barrett and Steve Balmer (respectively) rather than the "tough love" approach which served the companies for many years.

GE's Jack Welch was a hard line; in-your-face manager who worked well with his people but aggressively challenged employees, business partners and even governments. Lou Gerstner came into IBM at a critical period, slashed staffing, reshuffled business units and demanded performance and limited his contacts with the press and financial community.

Hard to Soft

Relying less on the personal approach than positions of power, Andy Grove at Intel and Bill Gates at Microsoft moved aggressively with customers and business partners and were even confrontational with governments around the globe. HP, which had an almost mythical history of soft-touch management, was shaken to its foundation when Carly Fiorina became president forcing changes by dictate and the will of her convictions.

During the HP/Compaq campaign, Ms Fiorina mirrored the hardball approach that had worked so well for IBM's Gerstner and GE's Welch. In what some have referred to as a good cop/bad cop routine, Compaq's Michael Capellas balanced Ms. Fiorina's tough statements and black/white decisions. He quietly and confidently worked to reassure customers, partners, employees and shareholders that the two organizations were getting inputs from all parties to develop an integration program that encouraged and respected their inputs and recommendations.

Capellas never shied away from focusing on people and shareholder value during the merger process. His approach softened and humanized the management team that emerged. Now that he has moved to Worldcom we'll see if he can work his magic there. With his departure, Ms. Fiorina is trying to do something that is awkward at best - straddle the chasm.

Unlike their predecessors the new CEOs must focus on being more personable, more accessible, more open and more in touch with employees, business partners, the press and the financial community. Rather than use their authority to force change and progress; they must work at suggesting, influencing and guiding by example. The new climate is demanding that they focus on interpersonal skills, encouraging constructive disagreement and placing a premium on openness in all of their relationships.

Hidden programs and hidden agendas - even if they are innocent or in the best interest of stakeholders - will only hurt them. It's a tough time to be a CEO.

The shift also has a profound effect on how PR supports companies and management teams. Public relations professionals will have to take on more of an ombudsman role insisting on and executing programs that emphasize open communications - internally and externally. Management is beginning to realize that they don't own employees and partners. That means public relations will have to help craft and communicate new positions and new messages throughout the organization. Your guidance and recommendations will also be tested.

If your organization has progressed beyond "my way or the highway" management to one where senior management wants and expects inputs and recommendations on goals, strategy and specific communications efforts your workload has dramatically increased. Suddenly you have to think rather than simply react. If you establish the communications strategy and tactics it also means you are responsible for carrying out the programs and for their success.

If not…buy Kevlar suits!

Inside Out

The new management style -- which is more art than science -- requires that public relations develop activities that show that management wants to reach out internally and externally for information and inputs - positive and negative. If the company has emerged from -- or management wants to shift from -- the "just do it" style to one that says, "how should we do it," change won't happen overnight.

As American Airlines' management team's bankruptcy brinksmanship fiasco proved in its labor negotiations, it takes only one misstep to destroy years of work. Donald Carty's career was built - in part - on his success in improving management/employee relations. But the combination of hidden agendas by the board of directors, compensation committee and management team destroyed his years of work in just a few days.

Suddenly the board of directors and compensation committee distanced themselves from Carty leaving him with one option - resign. Even public relations was swept along with yesterday's "hide the facts, damage control" approach. American's PR position was that union management was aware of the management teams' financial windfall.

Everyone lost!

Unlike most new CEOs, Carty's replacement - Gerald Arpey - had to quickly establish, demonstrate and manage his reputation in the worst possible environment. Facing severe fiscal challenges he didn't have the luxury of an "easing in" period.

The unusual circumstances forced new strategies on management that every public relations practitioner should study and understand to ensure they carry out activities that are in the best interest of the company, management and the firm's stakeholders. His background in finance and operations did little to equip Arpey for his Herculean task.

New Wave of Counsel

All of the media's attention on business management scandals and the resulting destruction of the star power image of the CEO is forcing all of us in the field to rethink and rework the way we counsel, support and guide management in their communications efforts.

Because CEO cult worship has fallen out of favor, public relations professionals are rethinking and reworking their efforts focusing on the organization's fundamental stakeholders - the financial community and employees. Honesty, integrity, vision and value - the fundamentals of good leaders - have become more important to these primary audiences and the marketplace at large.

Public relations will have to earn a new status and new role with management. Counseling the CEO and senior management on stakeholders' perception and needs will take higher priority over the practitioner's ability to craft and place management's messages.

The ability to open lines of communications with the stakeholders and quietly building the reputation of the CEO and the corporation. Sub programs and targeted activities will have to be put in place with which are mindful of each stakeholder - employee, shareholder, business partner, government official and consumer.

Keeping the lines of communications open between the audience participant and CEO/management team will be intensely difficult. The public relations professional will have to navigate carefully as he or she helps promote the management and company to stakeholders and the stakeholders to management.

Remember the old adage…"be careful what you wish for, you may get it." Public relations has finally reached the position where counsel is becoming more valuable than execution. It will be interesting to see if we are equal to the challenge.

© Copyright 2003, G.A.Marken, Marken Communications

Other Articles by Andy Marken

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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