CEOs Still Need Convincing that PR is Valuable


After the Exxon Valdez spilled almost 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in 1989, Alan Hilburg, who was then running his own reputation management firm, got a call from an Exxon communications exec asking for his services. Hilburg, now president-CEO of Porter Novelli Consulting, recalls telling the executive that he would agree only if he could meet with Exxon's CEO. No way, said the contact. Then forget it, replied Hilburg, who has spent the last 25 years dealing with CEOs on crisis management and crisis litigation. A few weeks later, however, Hilburg got a call back from Exxon saying he could in fact meet with Exxon's CEO (as well as the CEOs from the other major oil firms since the Valdez incident had quickly grown into an industry-wide crisis). During the initial meeting, one CEO (who Hilburg would not name) asked, somewhat skeptically, "What are you going to do for me?" Staring straight into his eyes, Hilburg responded, "I'm going to help you turn the corner." At that point, the CEOs let their collective guard down and got out of Hiburg's way. "If you want to have a CEO who gets communications, stop talking about communications solutions and start talking about how the business can drive communications," said Hilburg, who spoke at the recent Counselors Academy Spring Conference on how to get the boss to buy into PR. Because of the corporate scandals in the last few years, the nation's CEOs have suffered a huge loss of confidence with the public and, subsequently, have a newfound respect for PR. At the same time, CEOs are grappling with myriad challenges, including new business regulations (SOX, Reg-FD), the growing clout among NGOs and pressure to create better, bona fide CSR programs. CEOs still have to stay on top of the more traditional line items, though, like profitability, revenues and the brand. The corporate scandals have certainly taken their toll. A Harris Poll found that 76% of Americans don't believe CEO statements on performance, profit projections and corporate practices. Meanwhile, a survey conducted by Porter Novelli Consulting found that 74% of CEOs polled acknowledge that they desperately need a pragmatic 'ear' to rely on. Taken together, current trends present an opportunity for PR execs to show they're not just about the ink but protecting the business and the CEO's vision (not to mention hide). Tom Martin, senior VP and director of corporate relations at ITT Industries (and a member of PR NEWS' advisory board), is a member of ITT's Executive Committee and meets regularly with the CEO and board of directors. He stressed that advising CEOs is not solely about reputation management. "CEOs who are able to focus more on the business results than publicity do better in the long run," he says, adding that PR execs have to move beyond mere business terminology when meeting with CEOs and be able to interpret the numbers the same way, say, legal counsel interprets potential litigation. "You can't just bounce off ideas but you need to bounce ideas that are going to have a good chance of being implemented and will be welcomed by Wall Street, customers and third parties," said Ken Makovsky, president of New York-based PR firm Makovsky & Co., who has worked with the CEOs from Ernst & Young, KPMG Peat Marwick and Mobius Management Systems. You also have to listen carefully when dealing with the CEO -- remember, it's not about you -- and ask pertinent questions. You also need to be willing to speak up - possibly risking your job -- something that most CEOs will ultimately respect. "A lot of CEOs don't want yes-men or women," said Judi Mackey, senior VP-director of the corporate management practice at Hill and Knowlton. "If you want a seat at the table you have to think about the other people in the room who are running operations in the billions of dollars and running markets with millions of dollars. They have certain metrics, but the communications exec can't presume that media relations can demonstrate measurable results." Sources agree that PR alone can't solve the current CEO crisis. Rather, senior PR execs need to singularly focus on their own CEOs, competitors and trends in their respective market(s). "Only a handful of PR execs see the emerging trends that can eventually reach a tipping point for the company," says Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief knowledge and research officer at Burson-Marsteller, who is author or "CEO Capital" (John Riley, 2003). Too many PR execs "are in a reactionary mode as opposed to connecting the dots on every issue" affecting their CEO. Contacts: Alan Hilburg, 212.601.8492; alan.hilburg@pnconsult.com; Leslie Gaines-Ross, 212.614.5181; leslie_gaines-ross@bm.com; Judi Mackey, 212.885.0531, judi.mackey@hillandknowlton.com; Ken Makovsky, 212.508.9601, kmakovsky@makovsky.com; Tom Martin, 914.641.2157; tom.martin@itt.com

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