The former CEO of a company that had a very public flameout participated in an off-the-record discussion. Asked about the performance of his communications team during the crisis, he - not surprisingly - wasn't kind.
What was surprising was his view of the central communications problem he experienced. He felt his PR counsel should have acted as the company's "conscience."
It's a definite red flag when a CEO needs others to be the conscience of an organization. But there is a truth for PR leaders to absorb. Top communicators should be a conscience by speaking up when good management proposes bad ideas and by resisting the pressure to simply promote the company line.
Being the conscience of an organization means taking positions with senior management that underscore the company's positive values even if the tide is swiftly moving in the other direction. It's not fun, but it's smart.
A top executive for a major investment firm commented that what he wanted most from PR counsel was to provide big ideas just like any other senior executive, and to inform senior management of how potential decisions will be perceived. Rather than being a career-ending mistake, speaking up can be a career-advancing move.
Most executives never intend to violate company values. Business goals and external events can create a "rock and a hard place" scenario, pitting company values against business realities. Communicators are aware of how the media, third-party players, and staff view the company. Share this insight. Detail how actions will be interpreted as either supporting or breaching company morals. Then show the link between reputation and meeting long-term goals.
Don't forget the value of diplomacy and offering options when speaking up. Sometimes a better way to tell the emperor that he has no clothes is to ask if he's feeling a draft and then offer him a coat.
Vada Manager, director of global issues management for Nike, has a good rule when decisions are made that conflict with company values: "Don't defend in public what you don't help define." Personal credibility is as important as organizational integrity. Rather than taking a hard-line approach, establishing this principle early on helps ensure involvement at the appropriate time. The argument to senior management is simple. Having input makes it easier to credibly interpret the decision for others and increases the likelihood of successful delivery.
Torie Clark, former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs under Donald Rumsfeld, provides the best advice, especially to CEOs and other executives who propose reputation-busting activities. She writes in her new book, Lipstick on a Pig, "Once you figure out you can't put lipstick on a pig, what you've really learned is far more powerful: you've learned not to produce a pig in the first place."
Lisa Davis is a consultant and former communications director for AARP. Each month, she'll look at a different aspect of counseling senior management from an in-house viewpoint. If you have any comments or suggestions, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.