By The Book: Tough Times for Corporate Communications Pros

Paul Argenti sees the big picture for PR. As professor of management and corporate communication at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, he advises his students that public relations should be woven throughout the fabric of a company - from integration with advertising to employee relations to government relations. But he's particularly interested in the role corporate communications must play in a world of reduced government, multi-national branding and ever-increasing corporate power. Argenti examines this role in his new book (with Janis Forman, director of the management communication program at UCLA), The Power of Corporate Communication: Crafting the Voice and Image of Your Business (McGraw-Hill). PR NEWS recently spoke with Argenti this month about how corporate communications pros can guide their organizations toward fulfilling their responsibilities as corporate citizens. PRN: In your book, you emphasize the need for corporations to present themselves as "contributing partners in society." Yet this has been a systemic problem in corporate America in recent years. P.A.: I have been writing about this for about 10 years now. When Reagan told us in the 1980s that we needed more free enterprise as the answer to our problems rather than big government, people took him seriously. So, if business is going to take the place of government and provide for us, it needs to act more responsibly than it has in the past. This makes the idea that shareholder value is a number one priority look pretty ridiculous. Employees don't get psyched about coming to work to provide shareholder value. Work has to be about something grander than just making money for someone else. That's where a strong culture, like Johnson & Johnson's or Goldman Sachs' for example, can make a huge difference. A company with strong values and a robust culture wins every time. PRN: Getting employees "psyched" is really the first step to recognizing that kind of robust culture. How do you encourage employees to serve as evangelists for a company? P.A.: First, realize that developing a coherent internal communication strategy is just as important as a coherent external communication strategy. When I wrote a case about Dow Corning's breast implants a few years ago, I couldn't understand why then-CEO Dick Hazelton decided to become the first CEO to appear on "Oprah" [to defend his organization]. When he explained that he did it for the morale of his employees who were tired of getting beat up publicly with no company response, it made such sense to me. Building credibility internally is the key to everything. PRN: In today's economic environment, many companies have been in the unfortunate position of having to lay off employees in order to survive. How do you prevent ill-will among employees and, as a result, with the public in general, when the layoffs come? P.A.: If employees believe in the company's values, feel that they are being treated fairly - like adults rather than children - are given enough information about the industry and environment, they will understand when layoffs are coming. Think HP in the 1980s; HP was able to get employees to take voluntary severance packages, days without pay, and a whole host of things others could not accomplish because they were honest and caring to employees. Starting with attrition, then offering voluntary severance packages, then asking people to take extended leaves is the right way to do it. It gets back to what I was saying earlier. If all you care about is shareholder value, then employees are liabilities to you; enlightened managers realize that employees are assets. PRN: In your book, you also discuss the importance of understanding the larger cultural context within which an individual organization works. We just discussed layoffs, one of the immediate cultural challenges, but what other hurdles do communicators face right now in trying to construct a positive public identity? P.A.: Now is not the time to be starting a major image campaign if you are in the investment community or working in an accounting firm. For others, however, you have a unique opportunity to show what you are made of with employees, customers, and particularly shareholders. I was particularly impressed, for example, by Bill Ford's comments in his 2001 annual report. He said something like, "We had a really bad year." I think all constituencies are looking for something genuine, something real rather than the spin and gloss that characterized communications throughout the '90s. My advice, therefore, is for companies to stop asking their lawyers how to communicate and instead take the advice of PR professionals. PRN: We couldn't agree more. But it's not always easy for PR pros to persuade executives to follow their advice. You mention, for example, that companies slip into denial in the face of a crisis. How does a PR executive get higher-ups to publicly address the reality of a crisis - and manage to hold on to her job at the same time? P.A.: This is especially tricky when dealing with CEOs, who I find have relatively large egos. It starts with making sure that your own credibility is in place before offering advice or presenting warning signs. Those who come from outside with lots of experience often have this built in, but a few easy victories can help insiders along the way. For example, helping the executive to get a media hit he or she wants by doing what we would consider to be everyday research can build enormous credibility. Start with small victories, and executives will come to realize how powerful corporate communications can be in their strategic arsenal. (Contact: Excerpt from The Power of Corporate Communication A look at the roots of corporate communication brings into focus a number of issues that managers face today when they consider how to craft the voice and image of their organization: an understanding of the larger social, political, economic, and cultural climate; a talent for finding or creating the circumstances for organizations to be seen and heard as they wish; an ability to capitalize on the psychology of constituencies; the need to discover the best communication channels; and the inextricable links between corporate communications and ethical choice.

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