Ernst & Young has created a new global PR position, and the firm
appointed Larry Parnell in July to fill it. He talks to Craig McGuire
about doing PR for prisons, politicians, and accountants.
When 'big five' accounting powerhouse Ernst & Young (E&Y) decided to
reorganize its far-flung communications operations into one global
group, it needed just the right kind of professional to tie it all
He, or she, would need the savvy negotiating skills of, say, a political
speechwriter. The person would also need the kind of crisis management
credentials you'd find in a high-pressure setting - like a prison
Yet, most importantly, they'd have to have a firm grip on the slippery
world of professional services.
Lucky for E&Y, they didn't have to look far. In fact, the recruiters
didn't even have to leave the building. In Larry Parnell, the director
of PR, Americas, the company had someone who knew the company's culture
inside and out.
The top global communications post is a daunting position when you
consider the sheer size and complexity of E&Y, which operates in 130
E&Y advises companies on a broad range of financial and business issues,
and has more than 80,000 employees pulling in worldwide revenues of over
$10 billion (for 2001).
While the communications division at some of its outposts may only
consist of a handful of staffers, that's an infrastructure with myriad
cultural differences and languages. And let's not forget the varying
regional financial priorities and practices.
"(Larry) has extensive experience in all aspects of communications that
he can draw upon to help position our firm strategically across the
globe with our key stakeholders," says Jim Speros, who has worked
alongside Parnell as E&Y's chief marketing officer.
However well suited Parnell may be, head communications honcho of a
leading financial services firm isn't exactly where Parnell pictured
himself 26 years ago when he graduated from Boston University with a BS
He had initially set out to become a journalist, but his first job out
of school was in politics.
Parnell landed a job as a speechwriter and acting press secretary for
Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta in 1976. "It was a great, eye-opening
experience for me," he remembers, "in terms of the power of
personalities and getting an agenda across." He went on to serve as
press aide for the Jimmy Carter for President campaign in
Massachusetts, and speechwriter and director of communications for the
Massachusetts attorney general.
Parnell's experience spans corporate and financial communications,
government, and public affairs work. Prior to his arrival at E&Y,
Parnell served as SVP at Ketchum, among other agencies. It was in the
agency world where Parnell says he gained the most experience by working
closely with big shots like Dave Drobis and Ray Kotcher at Ketchum,
Chris Komisarjevsky at Burson-Marsteller, and most recently Howard
Paster at Hill & Knowlton (E&Y's agency of record).
"I've rubbed shoulders with some of the heavy hitters in the industry,
and it's really helped me gain perspective on different management
styles, and different ways to get things done," Parnell says. "I'm a big
believer in an agency background, because it's simply the best way to
broaden your communications skills sets."
Parnell also gained invaluable experience as the public information
officer for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, where he worked
for two and a half years. "You're talking work stoppages, hostage
situations, and all sorts of highly emotional life-and-death crisis
scenarios," says Parnell, adding that such experience is "a little
unexpected in the professional services world, but great training."
Today, Parnell has a number of short-term goals at E&Y. These include
taking several programs - such as crisis and issues management
initiatives - overseas. That's alongside filling a number of key posts,
such as his own former job.
But in the long term, Parnell and the industry he represents have some
major hurdles to overcome - without some basic changes to the way
accounting firms protect their reputations. "We need to educate people
about the difference between a traditional and a forensic audit," says
Parnell, adding that too often accounting firms are criticized when
their clients restate figures or make mistakes.
A traditional audit finds the outside accountancy firm working with
numbers they are given by the firm; forensic is when the firm is hired
to investigate potential fraud. Travel giant Cendant and its former
auditor Ernst & Young were forced to settle a major lawsuit over alleged
accounting irregularities, and Parnell says Ernst & Young is now in
litigation with its former client.
Parnell explains that often accountancy practices settle lawsuits to
avoid protracted litigation, even if they are not liable. Parnell feels
this has damaged the industry's reputation as whole.
While there's not much he can do on that score, Parnell has worked hard
to increase his knowledge of E&Y's industry. He explains: "Years ago,
after landing a position at People's Bank, I met CEO David Carson and
had to confess that I didn't really know a lot about banking." (He has
since acquired an MBA from the University of New Haven.) "He said, and
it resonates with me to this day, 'I have a building full of bankers, so
I don't need another one. What I need is a great communicator.' It was
an empowering lesson I try to pass along."
1975-1980: Various political posts, including speechwriter and acting
press secretary for the mayor of Atlanta; Press aide for the Jimmy
Carter Presidential campaign in Massachusetts; public information
officer for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections; speechwriter
and director of communications for the attorney general of
1980-1983: Account supervisor, Manning Selvage & Lee
1983-1987: Vice president, Booke & Company
1987-1993: First VP, corporate relations, People's Bank
1993-1995: Managing director, Gavin Anderson & Company
1995-1996: Director of IR, GTE
1996-1999: Senior vice president, Ketchum
1999-2001: Director of PR (Americas region), Ernst & Young
July 1, 2001: Director of global PR, Ernst & Young.