Looking at his performance in the weeks leading up to his dismissal as editor of The New York Times a couple of weeks ago, it’s hard to believe that Howell Raines – who seemed incapable of connecting with the people he worked with most closely – would have followed the advice of a PR counseller, even if one had been on hand.
But surely there is something a smart public relations executive could have done to defuse the ticking bomb that cost Raines his job: a ‘scandal’ that mattered to no one except for a few Sunday-morning talking-heads and the employees of the paper itself.
More and more executives are in the spotlight, not because of the actions of their corporations, but because of their own personal roles. This is, to a certain extent, a new phenomenon in business. There is more focus on Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers and, of course, Martha Stewart as individuals than there ever was on their predecessors at scandal-plagued corporations of the past, including Exxon, Union Carbide, Denny’s, and Manville. (Anyone who can name the CEOs of all those companies when they were under media fire deserves an award).
In all of the recent cases, there has come a clear point at which the interests of the individual and the interests of the corporation diverged. The corporation clearly needs PR advice that puts its interests ahead of those of an employee – even if that employee is the CEO of the firm. I’ve argued in the past that the board of directors should have its own reputation counsel, so as to avoid such conflicts.
How long will it be before CEOs begin to demand their own personal PR counsel? I believe it won’t be long before a CEO signs a contract spelling out their right to employ their own personal PR person, at the company’s expense, particularly in a crisis.
Last week, a US district court judge ruled that when high-profile individuals are involved in legal disputes (as Lay, Ebbers and Stewart either are or soon will be), they are entitled to PR counsel that is protected by the same privilege as their legal counsel. It was a decision that granted new legitimacy to
litigation PR and recognised that the court of public
opinion can do as much harm to a person’s life as can a court of law.
Smart executives who recognise the value of their personal reputations must think about how to protect them before they actually need to.
Paul Holmes is editor of www.holmesreport.com