PAUL HOLMES: CEOs must plan to protect their reputations long before they are under the microscope

Should Howell Raines have had his own PR person?

Should Howell Raines have had his own PR person?

Looking at his performance in the weeks leading up to his resignation as executive editor of The New York Times a couple of weeks ago, it's hard to believe that Raines - who seemed incapable of connecting with the people he worked most closely with - would have followed the advice of a public relations counselor, even if one had been on hand. But surely there is something a smart public relations executive could have done to defuse the ticking time bomb that cost Raines his job: a "scandal" that mattered to no one except for a few Sunday-morning talking heads and the employees of the nation's newspaper of record. Obviously, more and more business executives are in the spotlight - not because of the actions of their corporations, but because of their own personal roles. This is, to a certain extent, a new phenomenon. There's much more focus on Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers, and (of course) Martha Stewart as individuals than there ever was on their predecessors at scandal-plagued corporations of the past: Exxon, Union Carbide, Denny's, Manville, etc. (Anyone who can even name the CEOs of all those companies when they were under media fire deserves an award.) In all of the recent cases, there has come a clear point at which the interests of the individual involved and the interests of the corporation that employed him (or her) diverged. The corporation clearly needs PR advice that puts its interests ahead of those of a single employee - even if that employee is the chief executive. I've argued in the past that the board of directors should have its own reputation counsel, so as to avoid such conflicts. So how long will it be before chief executives start demanding their own personal public relations counsel? My guess is that it won't be long before a CEO signs a contract spelling out his right to hire his own personal public relations person, at the company's expense, particularly in times of crisis. Think of it as a personal-reputation insurance policy. Last week, US District Court judge Lewis Kaplan ruled that when high-profile individuals are involved in legal disputes (as Lay, Ebbers, and Stewart will surely be) they are entitled to public relations counsel that is protected by the same privilege as their legal counsel. It was a decision that granted new legitimacy to litigation PR, and recognized the new reality that the court of public opinion can do as much harm to a person's life as a court of law. Smart executives who recognize the value of their personal reputations need to think about how to protect them before it ever comes to that.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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