I recently asked Richard Jones, SVP and CCO of Guardian Life to tell me how agencies can be better partners. He said many firms approach the C-suite with the wrong goal in mind.
"Too many people from agencies come into these meetings trying to be liked," Jones told me. "It's more important to earn respect."
That (insightful, true) comment came to mind as I pondered the latest revelations from the world of banking. Second-day reporting on the JPMorgan Chase debacle lead with the familiar-by-now claim that the institution had failed to heed the warnings of risk managers.
"In the years leading up to JPMorgan Chase's $2 billion trading loss, risk managers and some senior investment bankers raised concerns that the bank was making increasingly large investments involving complex trades that were hard to understand," reported Dealbook. "But even as the size of the bets climbed steadily, these former employees say, their concerns about the dangers were ignored or dismissed."
Risk management does not work in lockstep with communications. For investment banks, the function monitors operational, regulatory, market and credit risk in combination. All businesses embrace a certain level of risk, and risk management is designed to ensure that all parties have transparent view of their vulnerability and opportunity.
Communications may focus on reputation risk in direct financial terms, or along less-quantitative lines, including everything from talent retention to client satisfaction, and from board actions to government relations.
Though I have no doubt that some of the coverage of the JPMorgan Chase crisis oversimplifies the channels of checks and balances, the constant refrain in these banking scandals that, "no one listened to the warnings" makes me wonder how any concerns within the communications remit are reliably addressed.
The question brings me back to Jones' statement, and the qualities that define success, for agencies and CCOs, in the most intense business situations, not just crisis. "In some organizations it takes a lot of political navigation. It may be the case that the CEO's ear isn't the only ear you need to have," Jones said. "You also may have to try and influence all the other people who have the CEO's ear - and that could be quite a few people. CCOs and agencies need to be organizationally savvy and understand how big decisions are made in a company, and navigate accordingly."
Managing acute issues can test the limits of influence. Decision-making in crisis is accelerated, which is one reason individuals with a political background are often sought for high-profile jobs, according to Eric Andrus, partner at RLM Finsbury (who is himself a veteran of the Clinton White House and several presidential campaigns). Andrus notes the recent hiring of Richard Siewert Jr, former counselor to the Treasury Secretary, to head communications at Goldman Sachs.
"They tend to react very quickly," says Andrus about political PR pros. "But they also see that every reaction sets off a series of events. They can react quickly from gut instinct, but then they are able to think many steps ahead."
Andrus also points to a "sense of calm" that trusted counselors can provide to clients in the midst of crisis. "There's a sense they've been through something like this before, maybe not exactly the same, but similar."
Not every organization is in crisis, but the uncertain political and economic environment creates a similar sensation of urgency every day. While some of the tools may be brand new, and therefore bring new layers of speed and complexity, actually this part of the communications "art" is as old as the profession. But it has never been more critical.