Sunday, July 31, 2005

Worth Remembering 

This story isn't new. It's rediscovery of a management wheel, but it's worth remembering. Any CEO with operational experience knows he or she doesn't know what is happening in the ranks. All the reports that CEOs get obscure what is happening. Most business is personal interaction that results in numbers that go into reports. The numbers don't tell the tale of relationships until too late, if at all.

This is why operational CEOs spend an enormous part of their time doing customer visits, plant tours and store drop-ins. They know that they don't know and to maintain a feel for the ongoing health of a the company, they want fingertip sensitivity to what is happening at the bottom where company meets customer. But, even there, humans will work to sanitize what a CEO sees. It is the Potemkin Village phenomenon.

"The CEO is coming. Quick! Police the parking lot! Check the front of the store. Clean up the endcaps."

By time the CEO arrives, all employees are on their best behavior. I heard a CEO say one day that his store managers throughout the US keep watch on tail numbers of private jets landing at local airports. They know the tail number of the CEO's jet, and surreptitious phone chains alert store managers that the CEO is in the area if they spot his plane. The CEO chuckled about it. He wasn't a fool, but he had tricks as well.

This is a long way of getting to an old point that PR practitioners forget too often. We are contacts with the outside world, and we see things that are covered up in the bureaucracy of organizations. It is our job to make sure they are revealed and that the CEO knows what is happening. Honest CEOs are grateful for the information and depend on the eyes and ears at their service. Arrogant CEOs deny or are offended when brought bad news. It doesn't take long to determine into which camp a CEO falls.

But, even if a CEO doesn't want to hear bad news, it is a PR practitioner's duty to deliver it. This requires tact and timing. One may have to wait days or weeks to catch the CEO at the right time, and one may have to phrase the news in a way that the CEO can choose to see what is being said or let it pass by without comment, such as packaging bad news with good news to temper the effect. Unless a CEO is involved in illegal activity, there is no great merit in getting oneself fired.

Delivering objective observations of the outside world requires personal courage and a relationship with a CEO that endures through rough spots. It's a privileged position to be in but a precarious one.


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