Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Turning Up the Heat: The Royal Society, the leading scientific academy in the U.K., which represents the nation’s scientific community, had taken what The Guardian says is an “unprecedented” step of writing to ExxonMobil and asking it to stop funding groups that spread misinformation about global warming.

Exxon’s response is that “our Tomorrow's Energy and Corporate Citizenship reports explain our views openly and honestly on climate change.” In other words, because the company is quite open about the fact that it doesn’t believe in climate change, it is being honest.

That seems to me to be setting the bar for honesty pretty low. I mean it’s possible that there are people working in the cigarette industry who genuinely don’t believe cigarettes are harmful or addictive. If those people said, “We believe cigarettes are safe and healthy and children should start smoking them at age five,” they would, technically speaking, be being honest.

And that’s giving Exxon a huge benefit of the doubt, and assuming that it really believes what it’s saying. Al Gore recently told people he thought the global warming deniers got together with the flat earthers and the folks who think the moon landing was staged on a movie lot in Arizona to share their delusions.

But the people who believe the earth is flat don’t have any huge financial stake in that belief. You have to assume it’s genuine. You can’t say the same of the anti-global warming crowd. And the stakes are a little different too.
Calm, Patient and Good Humored: Larry Foster, Bill Nielsen and Ray Foster have a blog on corporate reputation issues, and it’s first rate, as you would expect.

I can’t believe they need any introduction, but Larry was head of corporate communications at Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol crisis, Bill was his successor—and a leading light of both the Arthur W. Page Society and PR Seminar—and Ray is the current corporate vice president for public affairs and corporate communications at the much-admired pharmaceutical company.

Between them, these three guys know more about the real world of corporate reputation than the rest of us will ever learn. Smart post here on the relationship between the weakening bond of loyalty between corporations and their employees and the declining reputation of large corporations generally, but the whole thing is worth a read.

Oh, and it’s called calmpatientandgoodhumored.com—three virtues in short supply in the blogosphere.
Helping CEOs Be More Vigilant: Thomas Jefferson famously observed that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” and now two Wharton business school professors suggest that the same vigilance might be the price of corporate survival too.

In an thoughtful article that comes as part of the excellent Knowledge@Wharton e-zine (subscription required, but it’s well worth it) George Day and Paul Schoemaker argue that issues can quickly become crises at companies where senior executives are more skilled at operational management than at vigilant leadership, citing Ford and Coke and Pepsi in India as examples of what can go wrong if managers are not sufficiently “open to new ideas, seek diverse perspectives, listen to a wide array of sources and foster broad social and professional networks.”

Much of what they discuss sounds like traditional issues management, but Day and Schoemaker make it clear that they see the function as more central to leadership than has traditionally been the case, and that the modern environment has made monitoring external issues a greater priority than ever before.

Needless to say, public relations people should have an active role in a vigilant organization—since vigilance requires engagement with the external environment. It’s another opportunity for PR to move up the value chain.
No Ethics in These Boardrooms: If you want evidence that the moral bankruptcy of much of corporate America begins at the top, look no further than this survey of corporate directors, which found that 85 percent of responding directors place a higher priority on corporate confidentiality than shielding personal information. And just over half said they have served on corporate boards that have authorized the use of “aggressive” surveillance techniques—similar to those used by Hewlett Packard—to address a potential leak.

According to Larry Ponemon, chairman of The Ponemon Institute: “Board members feel like confidential corporate information is on a much higher ethical ground than personal privacy.” Let’s hope a few indictments—and if there’s any justice, a few convictions—will help restore a little ethical perspective in the boardroom.
IBM Gets YouTube: Giant corporations are beginning to catch on to the reach and humanizing power of YouTube, and when IBM starts poking fun at itself in public you know there’s a sea change taking place. This video, a pretty effective homage to The Office, is the first in a series of three training videos that have become among the most popular items on the video sharing service.

At Slate, meanwhile, Peter Hyman takes a not entirely approving look at the “funniness epidemic” sweeping corporate America and wonders whether funnier workers are necessary or desirable.

All of which reminded me of a retreat I once attended in rural Pennsylvania with employees of what was then Creamer Dickson Basford (now absorbed into Euro RSCG Magnet). The team-building exercise involved a presentation by a humor consultant whose schtick including having people stand on one leg and put on fake red noses, on the assumption (I guess) that if they weren’t funny at least they might get some laughs by looking stupid.

At the time—and we are talking 15 years ago—I assumed the belief that a sense of humor could be taught was a peculiarly American notion. The only two people in the room who appeared not to be buying in at all were myself and a fellow-Brit from CDB’s U.K. sister company Biss Lancaster, presumably forced to attend as punishment for some horrible transgression.

The only funny thing about the whole episode was that after three days of team-building and warm-and-fuzzy culture building and work-life balance cliché, the meeting closed with a presentation from a client, whose message was simple and straightforward and a direct contradiction of everything that preceded it. “If I call at five minutes to midnight on a Sunday, I expect a call back by midnight or you’re all fired.”

No one laughed.