Viewpoint -- If Doing What's Right Is So Clear, Why Do So Many Companies Get It Wrong?

For every company action there is an obvious though not necessarily equal reaction and the media will cover it.

Companies aren't the only ones getting it wrong, of course. Schools get it wrong. Sports teams get it wrong. Governments get it wrong. You and I get it wrong, perhaps more often than we like to admit.

For every company action there is an obvious though not necessarily equal reaction and the media will cover it. In determining policy and in implementing it, organizations must be asking how the message will be reported and interpreted by people after they see it or read it.

How could people at H-P be so stupid as to be a party to the unethical and possibly illegal practice of getting telephone records by misrepresentation? How could BP, which wants us to believe it is responsible not only as a petroleum producer but also as a company concerned about things beyond petroleum, seemingly be insufficiently vigilant of refinery safety or pipeline maintenance?

The answer is that neither company recognized the truth in one of the more obscure of Newton's laws of motion. It states that for every company action there is an obvious though not necessarily equal reaction.

With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the message. But the media are going to be all over the message -- whether or not it's the one intended. Whether we are talking about creating a favorable image or putting out an unexpected fire, it is no longer sufficient for a company or any other organization to ask how a policy or an action or an inaction would play on the front page of the New York Times or in Peoria. In determining policy and in implementing it, organizations must be asking how the message will be reported and interpreted by people after they see it or read it -- in the Wall Street Journal, on CNN, on the BBC World News, on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, on al-Jazeera, on talk radio and on the Internet.

Yet too often instead of recognizing this principle there is arrogance: the arrogance that asserts this can't happen to us. Or there is denial before the fact: That won't happen. Or there is denial after the fact: This isn't happening. Or there is denial well after the fact: That didn't happen that way. Or there is less than the full truth. Or there is disinformation. Or there are lies.

The primary responsibility for managing well and managing for the good of the organization and for others rests with senior management and with the board.

Internal communicators must make sure that they have a seat at the same table of senior management. They need to speak the same language. When I say speak the language of senior management and the board, I do not mean that people should go around talking about new platforms, open architectures, the online space or powerful synergies. (I hear so much about powerful synergies that I doubt we'll run out of energy anytime soon.)

No, I am referring to such language as top line (revenues), bottom line (profits), return on investment, return on assets, and productivity -- to whatever metrics are relevant to measuring the effectiveness of the organization.

Effective communication is one of the practices of America's best plants. The best plants have clear vision and a strategy that everyone understands. The words are simple and straightforward. The best plants involve their employees --in focused teams. They identify problems. They root out causes. They solve problems and measure the results.

The best plants share financial information with their employees. Employees are not mushrooms being kept in the dark. Rather they are people being trusted with competitive data.

The best plants are places where there's a war on waste. Management experts often term this lean manufacturing. But it applies to more than manufacturing. Think of lean as a healthy diet, trimmed of fat, that helps people work smarter and more effectively.

The best plants are continuously improving. People are working together to add value, remove waste and improve performance.

Internal communicators need to be helping to lead the herd of circus elephants, not walking in their wake with a shovel. For if they are walking in the wake of a herd of circus elephants, they have been hired by executives who truly are a bunch of clowns.

John McClenahen is an IndustryWeek senior editor. He is based in Washington, D.C. This column was adapted from a speech delivered to the Northeast Regional Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America on October 6, 2006.

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