Monday, March 26, 2012

Ketchum's Leadership Study Contains Some Encouragement for Business Leaders

My alma mater, Ketchum, conducted a 12-country survey recently (Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor) where it uncovered what has been called a global “crisis of confidence in leaders and how they communicate.”  I always find studies like this interesting ,not only for the information they reveal, but also in how that information either matches up or is at odds with commonly accepted wisdom.  In the PR business, the usual source for such “wisdom” is the media.

I’ll save the suspense and summarize here what appear to be some of the more intriguing findings:

·         More people believe leadership will get worse in 2012 (31%), while 27% believe leadership will get better.
·         The report said that leadership credibility requires a combination of decisive action and transparent communication, which can be attained primarily through the leader’s own presence and involvement.
·         Business leaders were depicted as the most effective leaders, outdoing politicians, nonprofit and religious leaders.  Roughly 36% of those surveyed felt that business is providing effective leadership.  Forty-eight percent see them as effective communicators.
·         Only 25% of politicians and religious leaders received the same kind of rating that so many business leaders achieved.

Still, Rod Cartwright, Ketchum’s director of its Global Corporate Practice said in the company’s news release that the study “reveals for the first time the full extent of the world’s disappointment with its leaders across every category of human endeavor.”

According to the study, however, the business sectors that house the best leaders are technology, media, telecommunications, and then banking.  Energy and financial services followed, just ahead of consumer businesses.

The primary source of leadership credibility for companies, according to the study, was trustworthiness, and key to that was a hands-on approach on the part of the leadership.  Old-fashioned face-to-face communication is tops in terms of believability, followed by televised speeches, broadcast media and print media.  Social media, blogs and advertising were deemed to be significantly less credible. 

What this Means

Here’s where I offer my take on the Ketchum study.    It tells us what we already know.  Strong leaders are decisive, honest and transparent.  Because of that they are perceived as more trustworthy.  And because of that, employees will follow them through tough conditions to get a job done.  The hope is by trusting the leader, they will be rewarded with job security, and perhaps even a chance for advancement or increased income – not to mention, the sense of being a part of something important.

But as I mentioned, I always look for the thing that defies conventional wisdom, and this item goes right at the source.  After three years of almost non-stop political and media attacks on business in nearly every quarter, business leaders fared better in this survey than politicians and religious leaders.  Prior to reading this survey, I would have expected business leadership to have suffered, but instead it led the way. 

I did some additional reading and some analysis and arrived at my own theory for your consideration.  The media and many people in the PR business have bought into the narrative that the business sector created the recent economic turmoil and that corruption, greed and questionable ethics were the major contributors.  This worldview drove many organizations to adopt strategies for improved transparency on the basis that business leaders are not trusted.  The hallmark of such PR activities is the apology. 

I’ve disagreed with this way of thinking throughout and have never been one to counsel clients to use the apology as a PR tactic.  But many of my counterparts do.  They counsel their organizations to apologize and make quick reactionary organizational changes to appease critics in the hopes that the spotlight moves on as quickly as possible.  Too often, such PR decisions are made in the spirit of a legal plea bargain, never addressing whether indeed the company was “guilty” or “innocent,” but just striving for compromise to reduce the pressure.  To me, it’s a PR strategy built on defeatism.

And fortunately, the Ketchum study kind of bears that out.  If we are to glean anything from this study and use it to help our organizations, we may want to consider the worth in helping leaders stick to their positions longer, to be more patient, and while it’s always important to communicate early and often, don’t be so quick to make changes in direction or apologize.  With a little patience and strength, you may just find that your company’s strategies are the right ones, and the only real challenge is the effective communication of those strategies.

We should be able to presume that the leaders we represent want to do the right thing and that in order to do so they need time.  The role of PR under such circumstances is to use communication to give leaders the time they need to make their strategies work.  Of course, not every headline may be a glowing endorsement during this period, but if we do our jobs correctly, we should be able to educate reporters and the public on the dynamics at play as part of a larger picture so that the end, they are more willing to let leaders lead.

Based on the results of Ketchum’s study it appears the public already knows that.  In that sense, they just may be a step ahead of the PR community.

Monday, March 5, 2012

PRSA and its New Definition of PR

Last week, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) unveiled its new definition for public relations.  Within the PR community the process for coming up with this definition was as controversial as the definition itself.

A Little Background

A couple of the ongoing challenges the industry has faced, seemingly since it was founded, was a general lack of understanding of what PR actually does.  Tied to this, for as long as I can remember, there is a common outcry within the profession that alleges it does not have enough of a presence in the boardroom.

While I understood some of the thinking behind this, I’ve always worked according to the old motto that life is what you make it.  Adapting this to my career, I’ve always felt that, too is what you make it. 

I really can’t complain about a general misunderstanding of PR.  Yes, I’ve run into it, and yes, I’ve done what I had to do to dispel confusion and clarify the issue, at least to the extent that I could do my job.  Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it hasn’t.

Same thing for boardrooms.  I’ve been involved in some relatively benign situations where my client was the CEO and the hall pass to the boardroom was not an issue. And I’ve been involved in some highly complex situations where it would have been nice to have access to the CEO and his actual words, but that didn’t happen.  You work with what you’ve got.

In every instance, I never even considered that a new definition of PR would help.  But some people did feel this way and so they embarked on a journey to this:

“Public Relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

That sounds all well and good, and I don’t disagree that PR people do some of this, but it’s not the essence of what we do.  I think this as this definition strives for specificity it is ulimately somewhat exclusionary. 

Yes, PR is strategic, but not always.  Sometimes the goal and what has to be done is self-evident, and there’s just not a whole lot of strategy involved.  Other times, there’s much more strategy than you’d expect. 

Then there’s the issue of “mutually beneficial relationships.” Really?  Does that mean if we’re not striving for mutual benefit, we’re not doing PR?  What if your company is getting unfairly attacked by some third party and/or the media, and you have to respond just to help the company protect its good name?  Where is the mutual benefit?

Then there’s the issue of whether PR can only serve organizations or whether it can be a tool for individuals as well.  Individuals, it seems were overlooked in our new, streamlined definition.

The Process
PR as an industry is a sucker for fads.  The recent trend towards “crowdsourcing” is based largely on the idea that more minds leads to a better outcome. So, PRSA put the process for coming up with this rather mediocre definition to “1,447 votes, hundreds of submissions, abundant commentary and nearly a year of research.”

The definition that was selected was one of three voted on, and it received 46.4 percent of the vote - not a majority, but more than either one of the other two candidates.

The truth is, just about every PR practitioner you meet will have his or her own definition of PR that serves as a touchstone.  The one I tend to use in my work casts a broader net than PRSA’s.  It may not be your definition, but this one works for me:

“PR helps to create the right atmosphere to achieve a desired outcome through the use of some form of communications.”

In my mind, if I’m not doing all of this every time, then I’m not doing PR.