CHICAGO: Two former Fortune 500 CEOs offered their perspectives on the challenges facing the PR community in interviews with PRWeek at the World Business Forum in Chicago earlier this month.
"The most important thing the PR function can do is establish absolute credibility," said Jack Welch, ex-CEO of GE.
If in-house communicators do not have a seat at the table, he said, the company will struggle to get its message out.
"Journalists can smell a weak PR team, one that doesn't know what's going on," offered Welch. "PR needs to be in the loop and at all the meetings, so that the [media] they are talking to have trust in them."
Welch also observed that the media environment is more cynical today than before the tech bubble burst, but that "if people don't do a good job, it's transparent."
Managing crisis, he says, is a matter of understanding that there are no secrets. "You have to let everyone know what you know and frame it. But never assume that it won't be on the table in front of every journalists' eye," he said. "You can't hold something back - the world is going to know."
In response to a question from another journalist, Welch said that financial reporters focus too much on earnings and not enough on cash flow when analyzing a company's health.
"Earnings in many ways could be called an art," he said. "Cash is king. We believed if you were taking care of your cash flow, your customers, and your employees, then those were the measurements."
Welch also said that the media tends to seek an audience with him and other executives far more than CEOs seek out the media. "Every time a big CEO gets interviewed, the press says that we like the attention," he said. "But they come to us."
Larry Bossidy, former CEO of Honeywell, expressed concern over what he called a "big battle" in corporate America regarding whom PR professionals should report to.
PR leaders should focus less on that and more on ensuring that they have access to the C-suite, which is what CEOs want, he said.
"PR doesn't need to report to the CEO," Bossidy said, "but I want to deal directly with the PR person when I need to."
He added that it is crucial for organizations to develop strong in-house PR capabilities instead of relying wholly on external agencies.
Today's media environment has exerted new pressures on CEOs, he said. "The media is more hostile to everyone now. I don't think it's disruptive, but CEOs need to know that if they issue a statement saying five good things and one bad thing, [the media] will report on the bad thing."
Heightened media scrutiny also means that CEOs have to embody the qualities and values of their companies all the time, he said.
Bossidy, who signed copies of his new book, Confronting Reality: Doing What Matters to Get Things Right, at the forum, also said that PR people play an important role in helping CEOs know what their companies' stakeholders are thinking.
"If the CEO is aloof and removed, it's hard," Bossidy said. "The one mistake CEOs make is crafting messages for PR people that the PR people know won't have legs. They need to work together to craft messages that resonate honestly with people."