EDITORIAL: Corporate crisis work can elevate PR's stock

In a letter adjacent to this column, Rosemary Brutico, principal of Quintessence Communications, declares herself "crestfallen by the story that appeared in PRWeek headlined "WorldCom CEO tells shareholders a major PR plan is in the works. Her argument is that the industry will not shed its spinmeister image while it keeps taking on what she calls "dangerous, if not impossible assignments."

In a letter adjacent to this column, Rosemary Brutico, principal of Quintessence Communications, declares herself "crestfallen by the story that appeared in PRWeek headlined "WorldCom CEO tells shareholders a major PR plan is in the works. Her argument is that the industry will not shed its spinmeister image while it keeps taking on what she calls "dangerous, if not impossible assignments."

Brutico might be even more disappointed, then, to learn that APCO Worldwide - a firm packed with intellectual talent, and with a keen understanding of business ethics - has now been hired by WorldCom as it tries to clean up the mess left by the former leadership and persuade investors, employees, and customers to give the new leaders a chance.

Frankly, however, it's hard to grasp why Brutico is "crestfallen. The fact that names like Brunswick and APCO are mentioned in association with the mission to end the corruption in these organizations, improve corporate governance, and usher in a new era of honesty and transparency should be one of the best things ever to happen to the PR industry.

These corporations employ thousands of honest folks whose families rely on their continuing operation. They also have a duty to their owners - regular shareholders who've been treated so appallingly in each of the now infamous cases of corporate mal-feasance - to return the companies to solid footing. If the PR industry abandoned them now as if they were pariahs, it would let down the many stakeholders who had no part in any wrongdoing and, worse, fail corporate America in its greatest time of need.

Whatever you felt about the (lack of) substance of President Bush's speech last Tuesday, ushering in "a new era of integrity, the fact he made it - despite his initial reticence to be directly involved and despite the risk of triggering more investor nervousness - proves how serious the current crisis is. Failure to act to restore trust and credibility now could turn the trickle of investors exiting the market into a flood.

No group of experts is as well equipped to deal with the current crisis as the PR profession. For years, top corporate PR pros have been talking about the need to increase transparency, institute and communicate better corporate governance guidelines, and build a proper bond between the board and their employees, investors, and communities in which they operate.

Honesty and openness, those buzzwords of the moment, were their watchwords long ago, when most business leaders were too busy making moolah to listen to the "what-ifs,"

And those same corporate communicators and public affairs chiefs know that it will take more than a speech damning the bad guys to restore investor confidence. They realize you can't sell a turnaround story until you've actually done the turning around. Hiring a PR firm or handing a more senior role to a PR officer, as in the reborn Enron's case, shouldn't be seen as being about image modification, but rather as a commitment to a more ethical, open future.

The Conference Board has already recognized the fact that PR pros have the mindset and skillset to become the moral conscience of a company.

At a recent meeting of the board, it was argued that the chief ethics officer post should - and probably will - move from the legal department to public affairs.

The PR industry gets nowhere by walking away from this crisis. However, by joining the fight to change and restore the credibility of big business, PR could rise to a whole new level of importance.

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