OP-ED: Guts will help propel PR pros to the policy-making table

As our industry matures, what still stands in the way of corporate communicators taking their coveted place at the top management policy-making table?

As our industry matures, what still stands in the way of corporate communicators taking their coveted place at the top management policy-making table?

In too many instances today, there's one main ingredient still missing that continues to pose a frustrating, impenetrable sound barrier. That element is a four-letter word spelled GUTS. What I mean is the courage to regularly, consistently take the risk of hotly debating important issues - for our corporation or client - in direct confrontation with the top brass. In my four decades as an agency owner, the lesson has been indelibly dramatized to me time after time: If our strategic advice is to be priced and prized far higher than our penmanship and connections, that advice must be given fearlessly and emphatically, irrespective of controversy or consequences. We must candidly tell top management what it needs to hear, not what we think it wants to hear. We must shed the order-taker role. We must assume the gadfly role, the corporate conscience role that conveys true value to any enlightened, thinking CEO. In effect, we must put our relationships and reputations on the line every day, tactfully but tactically, and trust that the earnestness of our expression and soundness of judgment will be recognized as such, despite the feathers we may ruffle. What is it about our field, over its past half century of maturity, that has kept a yellow streak so stubbornly in place down our back? "If I'm too emphatic, too positive, too persistent, will it offend the boss?" "If I'm too forceful will it offend the client? Could I blow this account?" The paradox of our business is that there is often a clear gulf between an agency CEO's nerve level and the guts his staff is willing to exhibit. What can be done to permanently alter this dichotomy and allow the fortitude to trickle down to the troops and make them effective counselors? Based on very fortunate, empirical evidence, I offer this prescription:
  • Insist on deep, scholarly preparation. No more appearance of shooting from the lip.
  • Put your staff on notice that thought leadership is a priority. In serving the client or company, as long as its best interests are being served, a staff member must be willing to take the risk of a verbal wrestling match, an altercation, a rejection, or even worse.
  • Put your own money where your lofty words are. Announce a permanent new policy offering a reward for lofty misfires. I learned this lesson early in the 1960s in trying to build an agency. I was constantly uneasy that my account managers, when closeted alone with the client CEO, would offer good counsel, but then cave in early to any client rebuttal and resistance. I sought desperately to inject the guts that would inspire them to continually lead the client. We knew what works. The client was paying us for our advice, and he should get what he's paying for, with no dilution. But my admonition sounded empty without a proof of sincerity, without offering my staff the security of knowing that they had a right to fail. I did this by instituting a policy that, from that day forward, any employee whose firmness of leadership got us fired - and the factor was corroborated to me by the client - received an immediate, meaningful cash addition to his annual income, and a public commendation. In the years that followed, our firm - fortunately - administered this bonus many times. And what really paid off was the overall welding of staff morale and determination to be the strong consultants they had always hoped to be.
  • Put the spotlight on successful counseling. While the bonus system proved that nerve would be rewarded, what truly was the most instructive was to judge and show off the top consulting assignment of the year as a best-practice case history for all to study and emulate.
  • Persistence pays. Encourage your staff to become immune to rejection. If they truly have the client's best interest at heart - whether the proposal is a corporate name change, a stock split, or another issue - don't relent. In the final analysis, I'm convinced that this is the sole avenue that can enable the majority of our field to realize their highest aspirations: to become far more than the amplifier that competently "gets the word out," and take their rightful seat at the policy-making table. I believe it's a destiny within reach.
  • Ted Pincus is an independent journalist and consultant to Ruder Finn, McDonald's Corp., and other clients, and financial columnist of the Chicago Sun-Times.

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