Perhaps more than any other senior corporate function, PR is more art than science, more intuition than logic.
Corporate communications results are often hard to quantify, and clear metrics remain elusive. Which helps explain the short, unhappy tenure of many CCOs. When success is subjective, it's easy to be derailed by any number of circumstances, including corporate politics, external crises, declining stock price, or simple personality conflicts.
When a decision has to be made to remove a product from the shelf, withdraw from a controversial market, or cancel an ad campaign due to pressure from activists, the CCO's advice is judged as much on its logic as on the credibility of its source.
That's because the toughest PR calls are inevitably judgment calls, and there is no spreadsheet or projection in the world that can tell you if you're making the right choice. Complicating matters are the line executives, frequently with no experience or expertise in communications, who nevertheless feel empowered to pontificate on issues of corporate reputation. In a corner-office debate, credibility is either your greatest strength or your biggest weakness.
And yet I see senior communications executives squander their credibility every day, and miss opportunities to build deposits in the credibility bank that will protect them in even the toughest times.
While situations and crises differ, here's my list of credibility killers and builders that can derail or strengthen careers. Let's begin with the killers:
Ringing the panic bell
This is a common ailment among PR folk. I'm recall a colleague who felt it was her obligation to point out the potential negative media response to every proposal that got raised in a management discussion. Rather than make her seem knowledgeable, adept, or cautious, the constant carping rendered her annoying and unpleasant. Management began discounting her opinion before she even said a word.
The journalist comes first
Many communications executives can't keep their priorities straight. Early in their careers, communications pros are correctly taught to be responsive, candid, and forthright with the media. But as a senior executive, your job is also to decide what, when, and how the media gets information on your company. I'd never advocate deceiving journalists or withholding public information, but there are times when refusing comment or declining participation in a story is the best course. I've seen overzealous communications executives pressure the CEO or CFO to respond to a media request that doesn't merit the CEO's time. As a result, that CEO not only becomes annoyed, but worse, when the media request truly merits an extraordinary response, the communications executive lacks the credibility to make it happen.
Yes sir, yes sir, two bags full
The flip side of panicking is the executive who says yes to all management suggestions. When it comes to PR, line executives are truly off the wall sometimes. A powerful auto executive once ordered me to "boycott" a USA Today editor because of an unfavorable review of one of our cars. In the long run, that would only have hurt the company. It is your job in these cases to say no - politely and professionally, but convincingly. You should also offer an alternative solution, such as setting up a one-on-one meeting with the editor to explain your grievances.
Now let's look at the credibility builders, which will go a long way toward job longevity:
Spend time in the field
Every company has a unique culture. Learn the code. At Nissan, the executives who call on dealers are the "car guys." At Nike, the product development people are "shoe dogs." At Edison International, they're "suits" or "boots" (linemen or corporate execs). To have credibility with the field, you must speak their language, share their pain, and know how to help the executives and employees you deal with. Immerse yourself in the corporate culture - it will pay off nicely.
Pick your battles wisely
There are times to draw the line on behalf of the brand or the corporate reputation. For example, in a high-visibility crisis such as a product defect or a congressional investigation, it is your responsibility to fight for transparency and for putting the customer first. But such events are few and far between. In most cases, the brand is not truly at risk - the potential impact is small, or the benefits outweigh the risks. Consider your response carefully before telling an operating executive that something is too risky. Do you want a reputation as a facilitator or an obstructionist? Remember that each time you find a way to say yes instead of no, credibility is built for those critical times when no is truly the right answer.
Get to the point quickly
Just before I took a job working for a demanding, high-profile CEO, my brother-in-law told me, "Your job is to not get on his nerves." It was one of the best bits of advice I've ever received. You must understand the daily demands on a CEO and the hundreds of decisions and trade-offs that CEOs juggle at any given moment. Keep communications with senior executives relevant, valuable, and above all, brief.
An investment banker once told me a "strong brand is difficult to destroy." As a communications executive, you need to think of yourself as a brand, and remember that every action and decision you make either builds or weakens your brand image.
As obvious as these credibility killers and builders may seem, it's amazing how many resumes we receive from those who've neglected to follow them.
Don Spetner is SVP of global marketing and communications and CMO for Korn/Ferry Intl.