OP-ED: PR counselors should be the company's conscience

The tireless cynic H. L. Mencken defined conscience as "that inner voice that says someone may be looking." Though much of the time, no one is.

The tireless cynic H. L. Mencken defined conscience as "that inner voice that says someone may be looking." Though much of the time, no one is.

In the life of corporate America, decisions are made daily that hurt employees, investors and customers. Enron is just one such recent metaphor for corporations that make those wrong choices. And a study cited in the January 29 issue of USA Today suggests that we've not learned much. The paper reported, "Despite corporate scandals, most workers (72%) received no ethics training in the last 12 months." Corporations need a conscience. Without it, a corporation is a greedy, hungry animal chewing through people and resources, answerable only to the bottom line. If it can make its numbers, satisfy or hoodwink the authorities, saturate the media with Madison Avenue fantasies and keep employees from discovering they're a Dilbert cartoon, then life is good. But these are external regulators - the "someone who may be looking" that Mencken talks of. The conscience that Mencken fails to recognize warns that the decision you are about to make is out of alignment with what is right and true. It is the voice that preempts the external witness, be it the EEOC or the SEC. But who in the corporation is best qualified to be that voice? It is the PR counselor. PR practitioners are unquestionably the right choice - they're built for it. PR requires being an insider, as close to the action as humanly possible - not only nearby when key decisions are under consideration, but a part of the decision-making group. The PR practitioner is a listener, a strategist, a problem-solver, and a consensus-builder. If these strengths are present, he or she will know, and know early, facts and assumptions gathering steam and flowing toward a decision. PR also requires being an outsider. The practitioner must be close to the publics (the media, customer, public sector, financial community, and neighborhood). It is important to understand the concerns of those outside the walls and to be an advocate inside for those interests outside. The PR practitioner must protect an independence from the firm in order to best advise it. The interplay of insider and outsider roles qualifies the PR practitioner to serve as conscience. Wisdom grows out of that two-world view. By struggling to reconcile the views, a third perspective emerges that can be referred to as "the truth of the matter." And that, finally, is the gauge by which all that's absorbed on the inside and outside is to be weighed. This is an unusual person in an unusual position. The PR practitioner is the one who can hear the truth and realize (even before the courts weigh in) its inevitability. It's the way Churchill described it: "Truth is incontrovertible; malice may attack it and ignorance may deride it; but in the end; there it is." The tough part is putting this understanding into action. It's one thing to know when a corporation is about to violate a covenant with the public - it's another to have the bravery and practical sense of timing to make an intelligent stand against it. CEOs might not take kindly to the advice "do the right thing." And yet the signals from the top office are mixed. The head of the Dartmouth Center for Corporate Governance warned recently "you cannot teach ethics to a 55-year-old CEO with a big ego." At the same time, the Business Roundtable is planning an ethics institute for CEOs at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business. The PR practitioner should recognize the opportunity afoot and move into this uninhabited office of "conscience for the corporation." The timing might be just right for the office. And among those CEOs who've taken note of the headlines and the handcuffs, there may be a real market for it.
  • Joe Slay is president of Slay Public Relations, Richmond, VA.

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