Faced with controversy, the first instinct of many corporate executives apparently is to lie.
Only if that doesn't work will they resort to the truth - even if that would have been more effective and less expensive to begin with.
The most recent example of this phenomenon comes courtesy of oil industry executives who testified before a Senate subcommittee that their companies had not participated in Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, which has been shrouded in unnecessary and self-defeating secrecy since it worked to formulate the Bush administration's energy policy back in 2001.
Executives from BP, Conoco, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell all testified before the Senate, and were asked whether company reps had met with the task force. The executives from Conoco, Chevron, Exxon, and Shell all denied that any meeting had taken place. The BP representative said he didn't know. But just days after their testimony, The Washington Post published White House documents showing that reps from all of the companies except Chevron had indeed met with the task force.
While there might be some tedious way of parsing the testimony to show its technical accuracy, the fact is at least three of the executives lied. But why? After all, there's no reason why energy executives should not have had the opportunity to offer input. Indeed, it would have been irresponsible of Cheney to deny them that opportunity - and a breach of fiduciary duty for the executives not to have taken advantage of it.
Moreover, it should have been obvious that the truth would come out.
One possible reason for the executives' mendacity is that US companies have become so paranoid about their role in the public policy process - a right guaranteed by the Constitution and essential to sound policy-making - that they'd rather lie to Congress than make the case that they have something of value to contribute. This explains why so many corporations still hide behind phony front groups ("Americans For Something-Totally-Innocuous-Sounding") than make their case openly and honestly.
A more likely explanation is that they were fearful of upsetting the pathologically secretive Cheney, who has undermined transparent government throughout the Valerie Plame investigation and the debate over torturing terror suspects, and who responded to questions about the discrepancies highlighted in The Washington Post with an entirely irrelevant statement that the courts have upheld his "constitutional right ... to obtain information in confidentiality." (Though not yet the constitutional right of company executives to lie to Congress.)
Senators are now demanding that the executives return to explain their lies - this time under oath. At this point, their credibility in tatters, why should anyone believe a word they say?
- Paul Holmes has spent the past 18 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.