I was speaking with a top corporate communicator this week about how he and his company navigated a treacherous period recently, much of which was played out in the press.
He cited his long-term relationships with the media as a major factor in the company's ability to manage the issue. Those bonds had been forged over time, at the top levels of the communications team, as well as the C-suite.
Compare that with two examples from last week of media relationships that have clearly not evolved to that level. The first comes from the Enron trial, where Ken Lay placed the blame for the company's not talking to The Wall Street Journal squarely on the shoulders of the company's former head of PR, Mark Palmer. Lay told the courtroom that the PR executives at Enron believed that the Journal's questions were biased and judgmental, and both ex-finance chief Andrew Fastow and Lay were advised not to engage.
Published accounts of the Enron meltdown dispute Lay's testimony, including John Emshwiller's 24 Days. Palmer was depicted in the book as certainly outside the loop, but also genuinely trying to maintain relationships with media contacts under the most hostile of circumstances. But Lay's testimony reflects his lack of understanding of the way that PR pros and the press work together.
President Bush's appointment of Tony Snow as his new press secretary was ushered in with an equally dim perception of the way in which the relationship works. Bush's language was directed to Snow's public face, his mouthpiece role. "My job is to make decisions," he said. "His job is to help explain those decisions to the press corps and the American people."
A White House official who spoke anonymously to The New York Times affirmed that the President is hoping that Snow can take better advantage of the live press briefings to push messages. Easier said than done, as anyone who has ever been on that side of the podium could no doubt tell him.
What connects these two examples is the absence of any understanding of the nuances - and critical nature - of the relationship between communicator and media outlet. They focus entirely on the delivery of information and messages, and nothing on building trust through regular and consistent dialogue.
In both the White House and at Enron, the individuals charged with facing the media onslaught were often out of the information loop, rendering virtually impossible any hope of their being able to deliver messages that would resonate the way they wished.
Good corporations get it, and some of the most experienced and influential people in the industry are those that populate the top media-relations posts at major companies. Snow has significant experience with the media, and will likely benefit from relationships he has forged over time, independent of his new job. But his "civilian" reputation will only sustain him for so long. The President and the unenlightened CEO need to take a lesson from America's best corporations and treat the media-facing executives with the respect, and access, they deserve.