Harry Stonecipher, now ex-CEO of Boeing, was hoisted by his own petard, caught in an extramarital affair with a coworker by the very same system of reporting malfeasance that he implemented when he took the job.
When Stonecipher was brought back some 15 months ago, his mandate was, as he put it, to restore the company's reputation in the eyes of a key client, the US government. To that end, according to The Wall Street Journal, he hired outside ethics consultants and created an office of internal governance. The company set up a toll-free "ethics line," and all company employees were required to sign a code of conduct annually. Stonecipher himself told employees that any senior executive found violating the rules would be punished.
Seemingly, the system works. Only his removal from the post would satisfy the principles he himself had created, as Stonecipher admitted in an interview with the Journal. "We set - hell, I set - a higher standard here. I violated my own standards. I used poor judgment."
It's a bizarre story under the circumstances. Was Boeing's CEO really ready to live up to the standards he was setting for his organization? According to reports, the exact details of where his behavior violated the code of conduct are not publicly known. But as the architect of the initiative, he was as susceptible as anyone to its repercussions.
Meanwhile, the PR industry has been under attack for allegedly unethical or ambiguous practices, particularly relating to a significant client base of its own - the US government, as well as local governments. We have reported on internal investigations that have taken place at PR firms, as well as new ethical standards that have been put in place. Far beyond any firms in the direct line of fire, quietly many agencies are reviewing their practices and contracts. Many of them are even going so far as to tout their commitment to ethics
in the media.
PR agencies that are creating ethics guidelines in response to the current scrutiny facing the industry need to ask themselves if they are ready to go public with these standards, as well as to their clients, their partners, and their employees. If there is any doubt that the very highest echelons of the PR organization will be held as accountable as every other person in the firm, then that agency is probably not prepared. If an entity is not ready to identify and root out wrongdoing, and make itself open to the scrutiny of its stakeholders, it is not ready.
Launching and promoting codes of conduct is not a PR ploy. It's a commitment to a system of behavior that will protect something larger than the CEO - the organization itself.
Stonecipher took on his Boeing duties keen to demonstrate to its clients that it, and he, was doing the right thing. What he failed to anticipate was that other stakeholders, closer to home, would hold him accountable. That is an oversight that no PR firm leader can afford to make with his or her most valuable commodity - the agency's people.