EDITORIAL: HLS tale includes a lesson for all CEOs

As we say good riddance to 2001 and welcome a new year,

corporations' communications staffs will find themselves wishing for the

same things as always: appreciation for their function and a CEO who

understands the importance of proactive PR.



In this respect, it would be great if PR pros could persuade CEOs to

read Christopher Cliffe's recently published Dog Days In Huntingdon.

Cliffe was CEO of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a product development

company that tests pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and veterinary products.

Dog Days is his recollection of his time in charge.



HLS, founded in the UK, was listed on the US stock exchange last month,

a move it hopes will mark the final chapter in a horror story that began

on March 27, 1997 when Channel 4 in the UK aired It's A Dog's Life, a

documentary showing HLS technicians using force to restrain a nervous

dog.



Within hours of the broadcast, the public and press had drawn their own

conclusions, assuming cruelty was endemic in the whole company.



HLS staffers were branded as murderers. HLS customers bombarded the

switchboard insisting the company adhere to confidentiality agreements

and not mention their names.



In the aftermath of the documentary, Cliffe had pulled together the

company's divisional directors, scientists who - in Cliffe's words -

"were prisoners of their own deep-held convictions and see animals as

inanimate input into a research project." The directors were worried

about Channel 4 allegations of data falsification, but thought the

scenes of animal abuse would be forgotten. They prepared an apology for

the incidence of cruelty and a rebuttal of the falsification

allegations, but did little else.



Naturally, no one was interested in that denial. Within 48 hours, animal

activists were attacking shareholders and their families. Trade bodies,

such as the Research Defense Society - designed to protect scientists

from animal activists - disowned HLS, suspending its membership.

Government regulators, with whom HLS had always had a good relationship,

suddenly started new investigations, and the home office gained media

capital by publishing new guidelines for HLS without mentioning it

already met within them.



The company, twice subscribed when it listed on the London stock

exchange in 1997, was suddenly hemorrhaging investors - Robert Fleming

sold 15% of the company's shares in one day at distress price - and its

syndicate banks increased its "arrangement fees," worsening the

company's cash position and forcing it to cut staff benefits. Staff left

in droves, while those that remained turned against each other, the

chemistry teams launching an avalanche of insults at the animal testers.

Potential new customer contracts melted away.



If it hadn't been for a US financial group providing a lifeline for HLS

last year, a profitable, valuable business would almost certainly have

sunk.



Cliffe thinks it could all have been different if the company had been

more proactive in its PR. "At the first whiff of crisis," he writes,

"companies should seek publicity and not secrecy. Communicate from the

outset using the media. Rather than concentrate on knocking down

allegations, promote your strategies, objectives, and achievements. Pay

particular attention to your employees."



If only all CEOs shared Cliffe's insight. Now that would make for a

happy new year.



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