INTERNATIONAL: Letter From America - 'Governance is a comms issue', so act as such

PR is central to good corporate governance, but needs to be involved at the highest strategic level if firms are to maintain their credibility, says US commentator Paul Holmes

Corporate governance is probably the number one issue on the agenda for most CEOs today, so it's not surprising that PR firms are looking to cash in, forming specialist practices designed to help firms enhance the credibility of their governance efforts. Equally unsurprising is the reaction of business experts, many of whom believe PR firms are over-reaching.

Some critics have made the case that good governance is about substance, not spin. Steinberg Global Asset Management president Richard Steinberg has been blunt in his assessment of efforts to portray lacklustre numbers in a more favourable light: 'We ignore it. We look at the facts and we decide for ourselves without being spun.'

If clients are looking to PROs to help them 'spin' their numbers, PR firms are going to do more harm than good in the governance arena. One of the reasons for the mess we're in now is that numbers have been massaged and manipulated by finance executives - eagerly abetted by PROs - who believe they can make those numbers mean whatever they want them to mean.

But governance is a comms issue - it's an issue that is central to the relationship between an organisation and its key publics. If PR firms have anything to offer on this front, it is their expertise in helping companies develop strong, credible relationships.

That means PROs have to do two things they have not done particularly well in recent years. The first is to listen to what external stakeholders are demanding, and then explain those demands to senior management. The second is to offer substantive counsel, helping management formulate policies rather than simply communicate them. PROs must be able to offer this strategic advisory service if they are to bring any value to the governance debate.

The composition of a company's board is key to credibility in the governance arena. How can we help firms regain credibility if we are not involved in such decisions?

Some will question whether PROs are qualified to offer such advice, and it's a legitimate question, first because too many PR professionals have been willing to go along with clients who would prefer a cheap cosmetic fix to an expensive substantive solution. Second, because too few PROs understand the fundamentals of the businesses for which they work. (This is one of those cases in which PROs and IROs need to work together.)

The ability to rise to this challenge will be key to determining the future relevance of the function to senior management.

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