OP-ED: Widespread scrutiny necessitates better corporate PR management

These are the most challenging times in recent memory for today's corporate communications executives.

These are the most challenging times in recent memory for today's corporate communications executives.

The business and financial media are more critical than ever. Eager to make up for their "irrational exuberance" over dot-coms and slowness to expose bad behavior at Enron, Tyco, and elsewhere, business reporters and editors are looking for business' soft underbelly. And employees, who have been battered by sinking stock markets, stories of corporate malfeasance, and waves of downsizings, have simply braced themselves for the next piece of bad news. So what should enlightened corporate communications leaders do? Hunker down and wait until business media coverage becomes more favorable? Not a good idea. Sadly, corporate communications remains one of the departments most susceptible to budget- and staff-cutting. With PR already viewed by some as discretionary, if your department is only reacting, it's easier for senior executives to focus on you when they need to cut again. Instead, I think savvy corporate communications leaders are taking a more pragmatic and opportunistic view. It's as important today as it was five years ago for a company and its management to be known to a variety of audiences. This challenge just needs to be approached a bit differently today. Begin by looking inward . You must know your company's vulnerabilities - especially today. Does your company face litigation that could spill out into the media? Does a financial restatement loom? What are the regulatory groups that monitor your industry up to? Have you lost any executives abruptly? How satisfied are your employees? Just because you don't hear about these issues doesn't mean they don't exist. Your legal department and HR likely won't raise them unless they're ready to blow up. You need to be ready beforehand. Let's say your issues assessment turns up few or no red flags. Then what? Many corporate communications departments have adopted a wary view towards the media. However, reporters are only one audience (or conduit) to consider. The business community still wants to hear from its leaders. Groups like the Conference Board, Executives' Clubs, and others always seek strong speakers. There have to be good stories from your company. Have you found a new way to reach and interact with customers? What has your R&D team been doing? How are you adapting to industry changes? Trade association or industry conferences are also a good way to achieve controlled visibility. And that can lead to new strategic alliance opportunities. Who doesn't want to do business with a leader? What kind of employee communications do you have? Are your employees hearing from your executives? Do staffers have a chance to voice their concerns and ideas? Employees are often an overlooked audience, but more than any other group, they can make or break a company's reputation. What about community and opinion leaders? Have they heard from you recently? Or are you waiting to hear from them? It's not that companies treat these groups badly. More often than not, they just don't pay attention to them. And, that's how companies end up having to fight legislation or activist protests which could have been avoided. Finally, there's the media. Of course, they're not a monolith. Trade and industry publications still hunger for news and offer an excellent way to test and spread your company's messages. Reaching out to the mainstream business and financial media isn't automatically a bad idea. Though pressures on them have increased, many still make time for a desk-side briefing or a courtesy visit. This kind of relationship building helps in the long run - especially if an unanticipated issue arises later on. And, a well-researched (and well-prepared) interview with a senior executive, bylined article, or op-ed can really solidify your company's reputation. Perhaps you agree with these points, but are anticipating your CEO responding, "Why should we bother?" You can answer this question with a series of your own: "Are you happy with our stock price? With how our industry perceives us? With the number of strategic alliance opportunities that cross your desk? With the discretionary effort from our employees? Can we count on our friends to stand up for us if we face trouble?" If your CEO wavers on any of these questions, you've just taken an important step in demonstrating that a corporate reputation program isn't an option - it's a requirement.
  • Nick Kalm is cofounder and partner in Reputation Partners.

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