Halliburton letter campaign is just smart defence

One commentator argues that Halliburton’s use of letters from its own staff as a PR tool is sensible and not inherently flawed.

Oil services giant Halliburton – under fire after winning several Iraqi reconstruction projects without having to go through the unpredictable process of competitive bidding – needed to find someone credible to speak for the company in the court of public opinion.

Who could be more credible than US vice-president Dick Cheney, the company’s former CEO? 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 £1.2m last year to settle a criminal charge of overbilling the government.

So Halliburton turned to its employees. 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.’

Not surprisingly, the firm’s critics have been scornful, but mostly they have failed to articulate what they think is wrong with it. Perhaps that’s because there’s nothing wrong – unless you’re the kind of ideologue who believes it’s inherently immoral for big companies to defend themselves smartly.

One of the reasons for companies to manage stakeholder relationships – including the relationship with staff – is so that they can 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 recognising a convergence of interest with its employees (they would like the company to thrive, too) and asking those employees to act in their own self-interest. And Halliburton didn’t make the US military’s mistake of writing employees’ letters for them (PRWeek, 31 October).

Something similar is going on in Chicago, where energy utility firm Exelon has asked non-profit groups to write to legislators, noting the company’s contributions and, in some cases, supporting legislation the company favours. Organisations such as Chicago Urban League and Friends of the Parks have supported the initiative.

As long as the letter-writers are engaging in the debate of their own free will, this is good PR: forging a relationship, nurturing it and leveraging it at the appropriate time.

Paul Holmes is editor of www.holmesreport.com

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