Models that are so arcane that the CEOs of the firms running them don't even understand them complicate the dynamic. And it is not limited to external consulting. Who among us has the temerity to question the wisdom of revenue-generating activities just because something doesn't quite make sense? This is particularly true when, as editor-in-chief Keith O'Brien pointed out in a recent column, business expertise is still deficient in much of the PR profession.
Mainstream media have not fared better as a watchdog. When Wachovia CEO Bob Steel touted the strength of the bank on CNBC's Mad Money a mere three weeks ago, host Jim Cramer gave its stock the thumbs up. As The New York Times reported last week, this was only one example of the litany of has-been corporate leaders who publicly denied they were on the brink, among them Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns.
Meanwhile, the public is left incredulous at the audacity of the financial firms and scornful of the media that offer the mega-phone. The business and political media have, for the past two weeks, been trying desperately to play catch-up on the underlying issues, compiling roundup stories that serve as primers on the facts for both readers and reporters.
Given the media's own catch-up and the focus on the legislative process, those who are giving counsel to CEOs have few resources to turn to for guidance through this mess. It is too late to stem the damage that has either arrived or is on the horizon. But we must evaluate what communications leaders, internally and externally, can do to arm themselves to serve as better counselors to their companies and clients as they try to control it.
The answer is in information. The reporters who now look very smart were the ones who weren't afraid to look dumb. They sought to find out what was really going on in the credit markets and why so many people were on the brink of losing their homes. Intellectual curiosity is a defining characteristic of many people who enter the PR profession. They must seek to exploit its value inside their companies. The point is to understand the details so that the early warning system is engaged to detect problems down the line.
Right now, media coverage is rife with pundits, analysts, experts, and corporate leaders anxious to spread the word that their organizations stand on firm foundations. But quite soon, the frenzy will retreat, and CEOs will shy away from visibility. Revenue models will emerge that are neither easily understood nor well explained. Now is the time for communicators to prepare, not for crisis, but for the next complicated success. It is easy to say the sky is falling when everyone is already vacuuming ceiling tiles out of the carpet. The hard part is paying attention when everything on the surface seems just fine.
Julia Hood is publishing director of PRWeek.