Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why Public Relations Matters

There’s a saying that “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” but that seems to be the best description for the task set before the PR teams at Ford, GM, and Chrysler. Less than two weeks ago, the CEOs of the big 3 automakers presented themselves in front of a congressional panel to beg for money, and they came away with nothing but the image of their own incompetence and narcissism burned into the mind of the American public. If one of these men had been unprepared, it would have been remarkable, but the fact that all three were unprepared is simply astonishing. So tomorrow, they get to try all over again.

There should be page in the CEO “how to” manual that tells a titan of industry to meet with his PR director before he appears before congress. Most people think of PR guys as spin-masters and slick mouthpieces, and some are just that, but the very best PR directors working at the most successful companies are paid handsomely for one very important talent— they can see things the way that people outside the company see things. They are inoculated against internal groupthink, and— most importantly— they have the personal fortitude to speak truth to power, and to tell a CEO the things that a CEO doesn’t want to hear. A good PR director would have told any one of the big 3 CEOs to cut his own salary, to sell off the corporate jets, and to carry a pen and paper to take notes so that it would appear to the congressmen that somebody actually gave a shit.

I suspect that all three American automakers have such PR directors on their payroll. The fact that they weren’t consulted explains why their companies are in financial trouble. The inept and arrogant big 3 CEOs have accepted the dysfunction in their styling departments, and their engineering departments, and their strategic planning departments, and their marketing departments— so why would they think about trusting their PR departments? The good news, however, is that Americans have the choice to not buy their products.

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