AWKWARD CONVERSATIONS

I had lunch recently with an old friend from overseas. She is director of communications at a company that has been in the corporate wars of late. She’d been learning, she explained, through practice and repetition, the art of managing profits warnings and soothing frayed nerves: her firm’s recent financial performance had failed consistently to shake hands with market expectations.

The money markets had penalised this flagging performance with a 50 percent cut in the share price in just two quarters. Deteriorating staff morale was unlikely to rise on news of an impending round of further job cuts. Customers, meanwhile, were getting increasingly anxious. The chief executive, a man for whom the term ‘alpha male’ could be considered deficient, was what press headline writers like to call ‘embattled’. She was open to advice.

The discussion followed the usual path. “Batten down the hatches on media engagement and focus on employees. Help re-build performance by creating a shared sense of employee accountability and a desire to win again. Create a positive vision for the future and work hard to bolster waning customer loyalty. When the company’s performance makes friends with predictability again, start selling the turnaround story externally with the CEO as reformer/hero.”

We were agreed. Then I proposed, with the confidence of someone in the role of passive advisor, that if that scenario was unlikely to happen in a timeframe that meets stakeholder expectations, maybe it was the time for the CEO to give someone else a chance? Chief executives get compensated handsomely when things are good. The downside risk, should it go horribly wrong, is priced into their pay and perks. Her reaction to my suggestion was no less welcoming that had I called her children ugly.

Hard-wired into the DNA of all senior PR people is a resolution to defend to the death our senior executives against the worst assaults the system can mount. Our compulsion to protect and shore up the defences is often heightened by the close personal relationships we’ve built with the individuals. It’s partly human nature and partly professional pride.

Ultimately, however, the communications team is there to listen, to monitor and respond to the views of stakeholders as well as to create and inform them. It is not in the remit to blindly defend the interests of failing leaders when these interests no longer align with the business’ bigger interest. Sometimes, it’s a necessary step to rebuilding a corporate reputation.

However uncomfortable it might be and whatever implications it might have for our paychecks, our remit is to assess stakeholder perception, highlight them and propose communications solutions that address those perceptions. Everything else, including acting as bodyguard for the fading reputation of an executive, is secondary.

Easier said than done, granted, but communicators need to be prepared to hold up a mirror to the business, to tell it exactly as it is and what stakeholders really think in difficult times. We need to do this with the same confidence we do when headlines are positive and graphs are trending in happy directions.

Unless we can have the necessary but uncomfortably honest conversations when the business needs them most, we will struggle as a profession to get away from our reputation as spin doctors and ‘peddlers of happy news’ when all the objective evidence suggests otherwise.

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