Sometimes, when I'm explaining to someone outside the profession what good PR looks like, I'll get the following response: "That's just common sense." Not quite, I tell them.Public relations is applied common sense. Of course, sense is not nearly as common as we'd like to think, and applying it is more difficult than it looks, which is why 100,000 people continue to earn a living doing what we do. The words "common sense" have flashed through my mind more than once over the past couple of weeks as I watched Dick Grasso's career at the New York Stock Exchange implode in appalling slow motion. If only he'd looked at the nine digits on that paycheck and thought for a moment about how they might look to other people. If only he'd gotten out ahead of the story, rather than allowing bad news to drip out like Chinese water torture. If only he'd seemed just a little bit embarrassed. If only someone with the right combination of wisdom and courage had walked into Grasso's office and slapped him until he realized the folly of his ways. That's what applied common sense is - the wisdom to see a PR blunder coming before it hits the front page, and the courage to do something to stop it. Courage means telling the CEO what he doesn't want to hear. In this case, courage might have lost a PR person his or her job, but it might also have kept Grasso in his. Now, of course, the institution's counselors must turn to their new most important client. Not John Reed, who demonstrated his PR savvy by taking the interim job for just a dollar - a gesture that looked like pandering to this observer, but underscored Grasso's shortcomings - but the NYSE's board of directors, who have some serious explaining to do. Let's start with Carl McCall, nominally the head of the exchange's compensation committee, who told reporters he didn't realize just how much the chief executive was taking home. "I got different pieces of the contract at different times," he said, explaining why the additional $43 million Grasso was to receive (on top of the $139.5 million announced earlier) came as a complete surprise to him. "It wasn't clear, and it should have been clear." McCall, who sounds like Ken Lay, astonished at the things that happened on his watch, needs to go, and so do the rest of the directors. The exchange needs new, independent oversight drawn from outside the industry: institutional investors, shareholder activists, academics. And it needs rules preventing its new CEO from getting too cozy with board members. It will take plenty of wisdom and courage to restore the organization's reputation.
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