Wednesday, February 18, 2004


There are pseudo-beliefs in PR -- principles that practitioners believe must not be broken for a company to communicate well. Unfortunately, most of these beliefs are wrong -- or limited in scope. In fact, some companies do not need to communicate much at all except to customers, and they do well.

It was early in my PR work that I learned this lesson the hard way. I was part of an agency that performed communications audits for companies as a way to get more business. A company pays you to tell it what is wrong with its communications, then you sell the company a program to fix it.

We were engaged by a firm called Central Soya, an agricultural company that was in a bevy of businesses from grain trading, grain transport, chicken growing and processing, feed production and international entities. Central Soya was headquartered in a high-rise building in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was a drab place with peeling linoleum floors and gunmetal gray desks. Even in the headquarters building one could not find out all the company did. For some reason, the CEO said he would pay for a low-cost audit, so I was sent to several of its US locations to interview employees and to learn what they knew about Central Soya.

I traveled the length of Indiana, visited Ohio and ended up in Athens, Georgia where Central Soya had a feed plant, million-egg chicken hatchery and a chicken processing plant that turned hens into cold-pack fryers ready for the oven. The head of the plant sent an employee to me to interview who was a terrified looking man, grizzled, horn-handed and inarticulate. He never spoke a complete sentence during the interview. And, while I didn't know for sure, it was possible he was illiterate. The interview was a failure. When I asked him what he thought of Central Soya, the only answer I got was "Good Cmpee."

I collected all the interviews, returned to my office in Chicago, penned the audit results and wrote a plan for better employee communications. (No one knew anything about their own firm.) We took the plan to Fort Wayne and presented it to the CEO. The CEO never looked at it. We never got the business either. He was content that no one in Central Soya knew what anyone else was doing as long as customers were happy. And, he wasn't much worried about employee and customer loyalty either. He could always get more low-wage workers for his chicken processing plant, and since Central Soya owned the most grain barges on the Mississippi River, elevator owners had to deal with him.

That episode taught me to examine PR principles with deep skepticism. It was years later that my re-examination became my first book, Integrating Corporate Communications.

Most business specialties have pseudo-beliefs and not just PR. The point is that we should challenge our thinking before others do it for us.


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