Communicators must dare to be bold

PR counselors have a huge role to play in not allowing chief executives' uncertainty to manifest itself into tentativeness.

This morning I attended the "Global Street Fight" in New York. No, this wasn't some pugilistic spectacle, though the Gibbs & Soell event certainly packed a punch.

With speakers including Harris Interactive EVP Robert Fronk and former deputy managing editor at Fortune Hank Gilman, this breakfast program posed the question: Are your ideas disruptive enough to win in this economy?

Before attempting to answer that query, it's important to underscore what the question assumes: that companies realize that they need disruptive ideas, something the 2012 PRWeek/Allison+Partners C-Factors Survey highlighted as it underscored the need for creativity in communications.

Accepting that premise, this question can't be tackled without analysis of what consumers expect from CEOs. According to a Gibbs & Soell/Harris Interactive study, the public is split 50-50, with half wanting corporate leaders to be successful risk managers so their companies can operate steadily and consistently, while the other 50% crave boldness and innovation to drive the business forward.

But a deeper look, according to Fronk, reveals a broader search for bold leadership. Younger consumers, those in the 18- to 34-year-old range, want CEOs to take risks. Similarly, older consumers with valuable investment portfolios also want boldness and innovation from corporate leaders.

These findings highlight that while CEOs would do best to excel at both, the latter is essential because they must come up with creative ideas to counteract the still-tenuous economy – and this is where guidance from communications counsel is so valuable. 

"It's kind of like the Wild West out there," said Gilman. CEOs are operating in more uncertainty than ever before, he added, from financial regulations to what will happen with Medicare to the climate and technology.

However, PR counselors have a huge role to play here in not allowing chief executives' uncertainty to manifest itself into tentativeness. As Fronk noted, consumers don't want to hear that CEOs are unsure. They feel corporate leaders are compensated handsomely to make those bold decisions and to make sure those moves turn into performance. 

And those bold decisions can be relatively simple. In the 1980s, amidst a very difficult economy, Walmart opened new stores and cut prices. Fast forward to today – that move paid off, didn't it?

More recently, Nissan, after three decades, revived the old Datsun brand last year in emerging markets. If nothing else, the move certainly helped raise visibility. Even Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer's early-2013 ban on telecommuting was a bold move, whether you agree with it or not. 

But be careful. Boldness can backfire. Just ask JC Penney. Ron Johnson, who recently stepped down as CEO, decided to abandon the retailer's long-followed strategy of sales and coupons to become a “cooler” brand, similar to Apple, where he headed the retail operation prior to taking JC Penney's top role. That strategy was abandoned, the company brought back Johnson's predecessor Mike Ullman, and it even took ads out this week to apologize to customers.

Communicators have long craved that "seat at the table" – and many now occupy one. However the key to maintaining it is not only in ideas, but in having the strength to advise the leaders they counsel to never be comfortable or allow turmoil to be a reason for them not take risks. Of course, PR pros must also advise on what risks are not worth taking. Either way, both in what they practice and what they preach, there's never been a more obvious time for communicators to be bold.

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