Trust, the frailest of a company's intangible assets, seems to be going the way of Liquid Paper and dot-com millionaires. And CEOs are going to find that once trust has left the building, it's going to take a Herculean effort to bring it back, have it check in at the door, show its two IDs to the security people, and take the second elevator bank up to the corporate boardroom.
At one time, you could possibly chalk up the innate suspicion that many people have about "big business to misinformation, or a general fear of any large institution that could wield great power. In the eyes of many, bigness is often badness. And, clearly, many companies have aided and abetted that perception by failing to build a sense of "corporate personality - the idea that beneath the skin of a company lie the beating hearts of real people. Showing that companies are people, too, is at least one antidote to the "lack of trust issue that grows more deep-rooted by the day.
Meanwhile, however, we in the private sector often seem bent on doing the opposite: giving people good reason to be distrustful. All they have to do is open the business pages and read their daily dosage of stories about failed business strategies, failing companies, failing leadership, and the stories behind these failures to conclude that something must be wrong.
So, when it comes to fighting to maintain trust, to paraphrase a famous line, we have seen the enemy, and it looks a lot like us. And, as our latest Corporate Reputation Watch (CRW) survey demonstrates, CEOs actually have some understanding of this unfortunate state of affairs.
The 2002 CRW survey of almost 600 US CEOs shows that they believe the second-greatest threat to corporate reputation is a lapse in ethical behavior.
Most influential, they believe, is negative media coverage. One hopes that CEOs at least understand that there is a relationship between the two - that unethical behavior begets intensified and, in most cases, negative media scrutiny. Perhaps that's a question for next year's survey.
The question now is, what can we as corporate counselors, both inside and outside the corporate walls, do about any of this?
We can start by telling the truth - not necessarily because it will set us free, but because it's what C-suite executives need to hear. This means asking the necessary probing questions to find out what's really going on at a company, and determining whether the company's ostensible corporate values and ethics are actually reflected in the behavior of its senior management.
Once we do this kind of due diligence, it's then up to us to have the fortitude and courage to "call out senior executives when they are about to do something we know they'll live to regret. This includes being honest about the limits of PR, the first limit being that communications is trumped by behavior.
We can't paper over or rationalize bad behavior. We can't turn wrongheaded strategic choices into perceived wisdom. We can't make something just go away through stonewalling and sleight of hand. If we could do all that, we'd be worth a lot more than what companies are willing to pay us. We'd also be the equivalent of modern-day medicine men, rolling our wagons into town, waving a magic elixir in one hand, and pocketing cash with the other - all while keeping an eye on the quickest escape route.
Our internal and external clients may instinctively resist being counseled on deeds as well as words. Advice that they not do something, or not enact a policy that will get them into trouble, may not be what they are looking for from a PR consultant, either inside or outside the company.
This is a perilous time for corporations, whether the leaders of these companies know it or not. Our job is to sensitize them about this, to make sure they understand the implications of their actions, and to counsel them honestly about the perceptual impact of what they do.
It is also our role to continue to push companies to infuse the human factor into the way they position their business and their vision. This means being consistent in the way they present themselves to the public, and steadfast in their commitment to attempt to address public perceptions.
If we do these things well, maybe we can keep senior managers from drinking their own Kool-Aid. Or at the very least, help them avoid the latest magic elixir.