PAUL HOLMES: A corporation's best spokespeople are often its employees - as long as the words are their own

Halliburton, under fire for winning several lucrative Iraqi reconstruction projects without going through the messy, unpredictable process of competitive bidding, needed to find a credible voice to speak for it in the court of public opinion.

Halliburton, under fire for winning several lucrative Iraqi reconstruction projects without going through the messy, unpredictable process of competitive bidding, needed to find a credible voice to speak for it in the court of public opinion.

Who could be more credible than Vice President Dick Cheney, the company's former chief executive? Well, almost anyone actually, because Cheney's stock options make him a prime beneficiary every time Halliburton gets another piece of government work. So maybe the leaders of Halliburton's Brown & Root subsidiary, which is winning all the business, should carry the company's water? Or maybe not, since Brown & Root has been cited twice in the past two years for inflating costs, and paid $2 million last year to settle a criminal charge of overbilling the government? So Halliburton turned to its staff. CEO David Lesar invited the company's rank-and-file workers to write to legislators and the media. He even suggested talking points: "Halliburton makes our troops more comfortable in a difficult environment by bringing shelter, supplies, clean uniforms, and mail from home." Unsurprisingly, Halliburton's critics have been scornful of this approach, but have mostly failed to articulate what they think is wrong with it. Perhaps that's because there is nothing wrong with it - unless you're the kind of ideologue who finds it inherently immoral for big companies to defend themselves smartly and effectively. One reason for companies to manage stakeholder relationships - including those with employees - is to help them leverage those relationships when necessary. Unless Halliburton is using some form of coercion - and there's no reason to believe it is - then all it is doing is recognizing a convergence of interest with its employees (they'd like the company to survive and thrive too) and asking those employees to act in their own self-interest. (And Halliburton didn't make the mistake of the US military, covered in a recent column, of writing employees' letters for them.) Something similar is going on in Chicago, where energy utility Exelon has asked nonprofit groups to write to legislators, noting the company's contributions and, in some cases, supporting legislation the company favors. Organizations ranging from the Chicago Urban League to Friends of the Parks have supported the company's objectives. Again, as long as the letter-writers are engaging in this debate of their own free will (and there's no suggestion that Exelon threatened to withdraw its support if they didn't engage), it's simply good, intelligent PR: forging a relationship, nurturing it, leveraging it at the appropriate time, and aligning the goals of the organization with the objectives of the communities with which it interacts.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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