Monthly Archives: November 2008

Thanksgiving and traditions

I enjoyed running in the slush this morning. Don’t know why. Other than it’s the day before Thanksgiving and it seemed like I should be out on the concrete at 5 a.m. and not on the treadmill. And there is really nothing more peaceful than to be running early and by yourself, with the light shimmering off the snow. I’m not going to be relocating to the South anytime soon. In fact, never.

And I was thinking about traditions. For years I would meet my friends Walter and Jerry and Matt and a host of others and run Thanksgiving mornings in the Cuyahoga Valley — rain or shine, cold or mild, snow and sleet. Then we would meet at Walter’s van and have a beer or two or three before heading home for the main event. Those days are over now. Too bad.

But it’s interesting to me about how similar that experience was to the years immediately following graduation from high school in Pittsburgh — Thanksgiving 1965, 1966 and 1967. Every Thanksgiving morning I would meet my high school friends — some returning home from college,  many home from the army, some married, many working in the steel mills — at Riverview Park close to my home on Pittsburgh’s North Side. We would play touch football and then retire to the park benches and pass around quarts of Iron City in brown paper bags, under-age drinkers all. And every year we would be joined by those who had graduated before us — and then fewer and fewer each year — until we stopped. Too bad.

I hope young people still do those kind of things. It makes for some great memories on cold winter mornings years in the future if nothing else. Although I guess it is tempting to sit at home these days and post comments on Facebook. Trust me, it is not the same.

Well, as you can see if you have stuck with me this far, nothing important to say or complain about today. Hey — the start of another Thanksgiving tradition.

Enjoy the holiday. And spend it with family and friends. It’s a great tradition.

Romeo Crennal and presidential leadership

I was thinking about leadership while running this morning. Since I began writing this blog nearly a year ago, many of my posts have focused on leadership — and qualities such as honesty, empathy and character that lead to credibility and trust. Those are certainly the keys to effective public relations. And they create a profile of managerial traits as well — important for the president and other elected leaders, business executives and football coaches.

During the past week or so — with the stock market actually having a few up days — maybe we are getting a “leadership bounce” as President-elect Obama puts together his administration. Obama looks and acts like a leader — and he has credibility and trust going for him. Let’s hope that continues. It might be the most important change that he brings to the White House.

And that’s the problem we have now with The Decider in Chief — as he redefines the meaning of lame-duck and waits to head back to Texas. Most people stopped trusting him months, maybe years, ago. And he has no credibility — or clout. Jay Rosen made that point yesterday on Twitter as he was commenting on an article about Dana Perino that Howard Kurtz wrote in The Washington Post Monday, “The Final Days.”

President Bush has faded from the news, and the past year has been hard on his press secretary as she tried to follow his orders not to defend him from the verbal assaults of the campaign to succeed him.

“We took it from all sides, and it was difficult,” Perino says. “When you’re that close to your boss, it’s hard sometimes not to take it personally.”

Perino has done an OK job given the hand she was dealt — spokesperson for an ineffective leader who lost the confidence of his team, the American people.

Which gets me to Romeo Crennal, the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns are 4-7, coming of a dismal loss Sunday at home to the Houston Texans. The detainees at Gitmo would have known what real torture is like had they been forced to watch the last quarter of that game. I digress.

So now the speculation is that Crennal will be fired, if not in the next week or so then certainly following the last game in Pittsburgh Dec. 28.

That’s too bad. I think Crennal is a leader. Whether technically he is a good football coach I have no idea. But he has maintained his credibility and, in my view at least, professional dignity. He refuses to blame the players. He takes responsibility for the team’s poor performance. He has been a reassuring public face for the team as the general manager has been off in a corner sending expletive-included e-mails to fans and covering up the reasons for the hospitalization of Kellen Winslow with a staph infection.

And most importantly, Crennal appears to have maintained the respect of his players.

“I’m the head coach and the buck stops at my desk,” he said. “It’s my charge. If we don’t win games, it’s on me. We’ve got coaches who work very hard to try to get a good plan, try to put it out there, try to get the guys to execute and when the team doesn’t play well, it falls on the head coach.

“Just like when the offense doesn’t do well, it falls on the quarterback, rightly or wrongly. But this position, the scrutiny goes with it.”

Given all that, before the Browns fire Romeo Crennal someone may want to take a serious look at the front office personnel and some of the players.

But then I guess it’s easy to fire football coaches. With presidents — you have to wait for them to fade away.

Obama and school choice

Well, it looks like Barack and Michelle do believe in school choice. They said last week that their daughters, Malia and Sasha, would attend Sidwell Friends School, a private school with a price tag of about $30,000 a year per student. No thoughtful person can criticize that decision. Why? Not many thoughtful people — given a choice — would send their children to the public schools in D.C. And that’s the rub. Most don’t have that choice.

And President-elect Obama is lukewarm, at best, on the issue of providing federally funded school vouchers. And in sending his children to private schools, Obama is right in step with 37 percent of Representatives in the 110th Congress and 45 percent of Senators, according to The Heritage Foundation.

Here’s from an article in The Washington Post:

The public spotlight on the Obamas’ school choice rekindled debate over whether a populist president should send his children to elite schools. The District’s public schools are headed by an activist chancellor in Michelle Rhee, who is battling the teachers’ union and long-entrenched problems to raise standards; she sends her children to public school. She is backed by Mayor Adrian Fenty, who sends his children to private school. Both made it clear, by sending out a press release, that they had talked with the Obamas about their decision.

And this is a tough and polarizing issue — and like most involving education and our schools, there are no easy solutions. Yet it is important — to young people in school today and to the future of our economy and our democracy.

Here’s from a column written by Linda Chavez. She heads the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit policy research organization in Virginia and is the author of “An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal.”

Democratic politicians like to see themselves as champions of public education; but when it comes to picking schools for their own children to attend, their support disappears. President-elect Obama is no different than hundreds of other Democratic elected officials across the nation, from members of Congress to big-city mayors and city council members. The president-elect’s daughters have been in private schools in Chicago — and all indications are that they will enroll in one of Washington’s elite private schools when the family makes its big move to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

That’s too bad because it insulates the Obamas from what other families must deal with: a failing public school system that resists genuine reform. And in Washington’s case, it deprives a courageous new school chancellor of what would be her most powerful constituents, the First Family.

And the problem here is that Obama and many Democrats don’t favor school vouchers — which give parents and students choice but at the same time, the argument goes — diminishes the resources available to already struggling public schools. Here’s from an editorial in The Washington Post.

MICHELLE OBAMA’S visits to two private schools and her inquiries about Washington’s public schools have sparked the inevitable public vs. private debate. We won’t be weighing in because we would never presume to tell any parents where to send their children to school. Yet, as President-elect Barack Obama and his wife decide what’s right for Malia and Sasha, Mr. Obama might want to think about the families that he would deny this precious freedom of choice.

During the just-concluded campaign, Mr. Obama spoke dismissively of the federally funded voucher program that gives poor D.C. families access to the kind of educational opportunities his family is fortunate to have. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program gives low-income families up to $7,500 per child for their children to escape failed public schools and attend private schools. Some 1,900 children receive vouchers, and many more are clamoring to join the program. Democrats, and their allies in public school teachers unions, oppose the vouchers and, with the party soon to control Congress and the White House, supporters of the program are right to worry.

Let’s hope the experience of moving his girls and finding the place where they will flourish resonates with Mr. Obama so that he reexamines his stance on the District’s voucher program. How is it right to take away what little choice there is for needy D.C. children? The scholarship program wasn’t intended to replace Washington’s public schools, and it doesn’t lessen the urgency of improving them. But it does give some poor parents an opportunity taken for granted by better-off families, who can pick their residency based on school district even if they can’t afford the most elite private schools.

I really believe that the upcoming policy debate and decisions involving education are every bit as important as the decisions involving the Detroit automakers and the failed financial institutions on Wall Street. They all require leadership — and communications based on actions and decisions that are in the best interests of everyone. Gotta save the schools. Gotta save the automakers. Gotta save Wall Street. Let’s hope Obama can get it done.

And talking about education, I wrote Friday about Myron Rolle, the star Florida State safety. Well, Rolle received a Rhodes scholarship in Alabama — and then made his way back to Maryland to help the team win an important game Saturday night. Call it a victory for student-athletes.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Even with the snow, ice and wind this morning I had a great run. Maybe because it’s Friday. I’m not working full time these days. Still there’s something that lifts the spirit about heading into the weekend. And maybe my run was special this morning because I finished trailing a snowplow — yellow lights blinking and all. Probably had the same sensation (except for the salt smacking me) as the winner of the New York City Marathon heading to the finish line in Central Park only yards behind the pace car and media van. Hey. You can dream, can’t you?

So I thought why be negative or pessimistic in my post this morning. Plenty of opportunity for that next week, especially if that team up north somehow manages to beat Ohio State. At that point we will know that the world has gone to Hell.

And it’s just too easy to view the glass as being half empty these days. All you have to do is get up at 3:30 a.m. and start scanning the Internet. Here’s what you see on an early Friday morning.

The broad-based S&P stock average is at an 11-year low, claims for unemployment benefits have hit a 16-year high, and the Decider-in-Chief is still…Ah, what is he doing these days?

Verizon apparently believes it has been put in charge of homeland security, with employees taking on the responsibility to hack into President-elect Obama’s cell phone records. So much for the Blackberry Presidency, legal issues not withstanding.

The so-called Lion of the Senate, Ted Stevens, ended his tenure on Capitol Hill yesterday. I guess the criminal conviction took the edge off the re-relection campaign after all. But get this. He gave his last speech in the Senate — and his colleagues saluted him with a standing ovation. Wow. Wonder what would have happened if he had left with some honor and integrity? And in a way it’s too bad that Stevens wasn’t re-elected. Then his chums would have been forced to boot him out in January — and give a big shout-out in welcoming Sarah Palin. Oh well.

But it’s Friday. And to quote the philosopher Bobby McFerrin — “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

So here’s a positive story in keeping with the spirit of a college football weekend. It comes from the sports section of The New York Times yesterday. And it features Myron Rolle, a safety on the Florida State football team. Rolle is an important part of the football team, which plays a key game Saturday night in Maryland. But more important to Rolle — and amazingly enough to many others at Florida State — he’s going to be in Birminham, Ala., tomorrow afternoon for the final interview for a Rhodes Scholarship.

His story is compelling because it signals that it is possible to be a student-athlete at even the biggest football factory, despite the criticism of one of the assistant coaches last year who told Rolle his dedication in the classroom was hurting his on-field performance. Anyway, it’s an interesting story — particularly in the context of events at the university. Here’s from the story:

The university is in the final stages of dealing with an academic scandal in the athletic department that affected the eligibility of 60 athletes and resulted in three firings and self-imposed probation.

“He’s almost carrying a university and a football team right now, from a public relations standpoint, on his back,” the Florida State president, T. K. Wetherell, said Monday. “That’s a pretty heavy burden to lay on somebody.”

Good luck on Saturday. Rolle will know if he gets the scholarship by 5 p.m.; kick-off is at 7:45 p.m. And he’ll make it from Alabama to Maryland via private jet. That didn’t work so well for the Detroit pooh-bahs this week. But I’m sure Florida State football has considerably more resources than the Big Three automakers these days. So why worry, be happy.

OK. Got to stop now. I’m expecting an e-mail from Phil Savage.

And sing along if you want. It will make Friday all the better.

Bobby McFerrin

Don’t Worry, Be Happy Lyrics

Here is a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note
Don’t worry be happy
In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy……

Ain’t got no place to lay your head
Somebody came and took your bed
Don’t worry, be happy
The land lord say your rent is late
He may have to litigate
Don’t worry, be happy
Lood at me I am happy
Don’t worry, be happy
Here I give you my phone number
When you worry call me
I make you happy
Don’t worry, be happy
Ain’t got no cash, ain’t got no style
Ain’t got not girl to make you smile
But don’t worry be happy
Cause when you worry
Your face will frown
And that will bring everybody down
So don’t worry, be happy (now)…..

There is this little song I wrote
I hope you learn it note for note
Like good little children
Don’t worry, be happy
Listen to what I say
In your life expect some trouble
But when you worry
You make it double
Don’t worry, be happy……
Don’t worry don’t do it, be happy
Put a smile on your face
Don’t bring everybody down like this
Don’t worry, it will soon past
Whatever it is
Don’t worry, be happy

Airline tickets and the collapse of the auto industry

I wonder if years from now historians will look back on the collapse of the U.S. auto industry and say, “Gee, they should have flown commercial”? Great theater in Congress yesterday, in case you missed it. The Detroit grand pooh-bahs were making their case for a financial bailout when two members had the temerity to ask how they made their way to Capitol Hill? Via commercial airline — or private jet?

Here’s the exchange.

Ah, c’mon Mr. or Ms. PR spokesperson. Liar, liar pants on fire. There may be good reasons to use a private jet. But security isn’t one of them. So it goes.

And you could almost hear the groans from those attending the hearing following the exchange between the congressman and the Big Three. Here’s Dana Milbank’s take on it in today’s Washington Post, “Auto Execs Fly Corporate Jets to D.C., Tin Cups in Hand“:

There are 24 daily nonstop flights from Detroit to the Washington area. Richard Wagoner, Alan Mulally and Robert Nardelli probably should have taken one of them.

Instead, the chief executives of the Big Three automakers opted to fly their company jets to the capital for their hearings this week before the Senate and House — an ill-timed display of corporate excess for a trio of executives begging for an additional $25 billion from the public trough this week.

“There’s a delicious irony in seeing private luxury jets flying into Washington, D.C., and people coming off of them with tin cups in their hands,” Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) advised the pampered executives at a hearing yesterday. “It’s almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high-hat and tuxedo. . . . I mean, couldn’t you all have downgraded to first class or jet-pooled or something to get here?”

By the way, from the photo that accompanies the Milbank article it looks like Wagoner and Nardelli just ate a shit sandwich. I digress.

The real point is this. I know that many who read this blog are students and former students, now young professionals. What we are seeing play out now is a real-world lesson on the key points that we look at constantly in public relations and media ethics classes. The need for honest, truthful two-way communication. The reality that reputation matters — and that reputation ultimately hinges on confidence and trust.

George Voinovich, Ohio’s senior senator, is quoted in the Akron Beacon Journal this morning as follows.

If GM is telling the truth [emphasis added by me] they go into bankruptcy and you see a cascade like you have never seen. If people want to go home and not do anything, I think that they’re going to have that on their hands.

The problem is that the American people have lost faith in business and political leaders to tell the truth — and we don’t trust them to get anything right. It started in Iraq. Maybe it ends now in Detroit. We’ll see.

Oh, one more thing. I go to Washington on business now once a month or so. I take a commercial flight out of Cleveland. George Voinovich has been on that flight with me twice.

Executive pay and values

Well, I guess Rick Wagoner, GM’s chief, is now the world’s wealthiest panhandler. Kind of sad really to see him and the heads of Ford, Chrysler and the UAW sitting before members of the Senate yesterday with nothing to offer other than a tin cup and a prayer. According to The New York Times, Wagoner received $24 million a year in both 2006 and 2007 in total compensation from the now nearly bankrupt automaker. Ho-hum. No one gets his or her shorts in a knot over those kind of numbers these days.

And I wonder what Ron Gettelfinger, UAW chief, really thinks about Wagoner, Nardelli, Mulally, et al? Or how he responds to the point that Andrew Ross Sorkin (and echoed by many others) made in the NYT yesterday: “Bankruptcy would give the G.M. enormous leverage with its debt holders — and perhaps more important, with the U.A.W., whose gold-plated benefits are one reason G.M. is no longer competitive. A bankruptcy filing would also give G.M. cover to close plants, rid itself of unprofitable brands and shed dealerships.”

And oh by the way — redo the pensions, wages and benefits for employees and retirees. That may be necessary. But it doesn’t appear that Wagoner — who has been behind the wheel as the car crashed into the wall — is planning to go anywhere or give up anything. Quote his PR guy, Tony Cervone:

“A solid management team is the most important thing you need in the time of a crisis,” Mr. Cervone said.

Well that would certainly help. And it might help if the management team had some integrity and personal values as well. Somebody needs to take some ownership for this debacle — a sense of responsibility — and I’m not sure that should be the maintenance guy at Lordstown.

Here’s a few other loosely related points:

  • Ohio used to be a state. But I saw U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown identified in a story about the auto bailout in the Akron Beacon Journal this morning as D-Lorain. Oh well.
  • Since no one cares about the compensation of the corporate chiefs any more, how about the big bucks the guys and gals are getting who head our colleges and universities? “Median pay and benefits for presidents of public institutions rose 7.6 percent in 2007-8, to $427,400, The Chronicle [of Higher Education] said. Over a five-year period, the public universities’ median compensation rose 36 percent, compared with 19 percent at private institutions.” I guess this will be the next bailout. And I was going to opine about Lestor Lefton. But I figure that anyone who is forced to attend every Kent State home football game deserves every cent he can squeeze out of the university’s board. Excellence in Action.
  • And finally, The New York Times opines that LeBron James is going to head to the Big Apple in 2010 for $200 million or so. LeBron, c’mon. Money ain’t everything. Well, on second thought — maybe you can rescue GM. Wagoner played basketball at Duke. But it doesn’t look like he can.

Management — perception and reality

I generally enjoy running in the snow. And it was hard to beat this morning at 5 a.m. Two to three inches of fresh snow, no wind and the stars and moon resembling the inside of the Buhl Planetarium in Pittsburgh. Used to go there every year around this time to look at an exhibit called the “winter sky.” Probably should have been thinking about that instead of the perception and reality of corporate management, except I read George Will’s column, “In Detroit, Failure’s a Done Deal,” in The Washington Post before heading outside this morning.

Here’s the lead:

“Nothing,” said a General Motors spokesman last week, “has changed relative to the GM board’s support for the GM management team during this historically difficult economic period for the U.S. auto industry.” Nothing? Not even the evaporation of almost all shareholder value?

Oh, well. I’m sure the members of GM’s board are sitting around these days thinking, “My, bad.” And that’s one of the problems. For corporate management, there is no accountability. Board members are hand-picked by management — and they don’t take those jobs with the expectation that there is going to be any heavy lifting. And the large shareholders — mutual fund companies, etc. — never vote to oust management, no matter how pathetic. So it goes. That’s reality.

Now perception. Would it really make any difference if the CEOs of the Big Three — Rick Wagoner at GM, Alan Mulally at Ford and Robert Nardelli at Chrysler — were forced to resign as part of a bailout deal? Nah. Probably not. Wagoner is a GM lifer; Mulally is an outsider with a track record of success at Boeing; Nardelli came from Home Depot where he basically ran that company into the ground. Bigger problems at the Detroit automakers than the three stooges. (And I guess Ron Gettelfinger, the UAW chief, should get into the mix somewhere as well.)

And the reality is that even Lee Iacocca wouldn’t have saved Chrysler from going belly up 30 some years ago without the help of Uncle Sam.

But since GM appears to be the first batter up in terms of a bailout, if Wagoner were to drive away, it might at least change the perception that Detroit is either unwilling or unable to change. And it might buy GM some time — otherwise without a bailout, bankruptcy. And at that point, thousands of employees and retirees are going to be looking at cuts in wages, pensions and benefits. In bankruptcy, as I understand it, the retiree guarantees, meager as they are, are gone — and the union contracts are kaput.

On the same day that the management at Citigroup announced it would cut an additional 50,000 jobs or so, the seven top execs at Goldman Sachs said they would voluntarily give up millions in bonuses this year. OK. At least it’s a start. And good on the perception front if nothing else.

And Vikram S. Pandit, ending his first year as Citigroup’s head sled, said the bank was going to continue to trim expenses. Well, not all of them — at least not yet. According to The New York Times article:

Mr. Pandit, however, has not decided on whether to share the pain by turning down an annual bonus. “Citi’s board of directors will make the decisions about the structure and level of compensation after the end of the year,” the bank said in a statement.

Now that’s reality.

Lame ducks and dinosaurs

Well, here we go again. Mama, round up the kids and get them off the streets. The lame ducks are heading back to Washington — and they have fire in their bellies and money (ours, apparently) in their pockets. If there was ever a time when we need some thoughtful reflection, careful consideration and truthful communications this will be the week. Don’t expect any of that this week as members of Congress reassemble in a lame-duck session to try to bail out the American auto industry.

It would also be helpful if we had some trust in the elected officials and the corporate management and union leadership that they could get this right. And for that matter — get anything right.

As Arianna Huffington wrote in an article last week “While Paulson Waffles, the White House Dawdles, and Congress Dithers, the Economy Continues to Burn“:

So, $290 billion into his bailout plan, Hank Paulson is calling for a do-over. Now there is a confidence booster.

Wow. A do-over on a big chunk of the first $700 billion. And the certainty this week of more waffling, dawdling and dithering. All those thoughts were colliding in my mind this morning while running in the snow.

What to do? What to do? Well, I guess we’ll have to go ahead and bailout the Big Three auto makers. Doesn’t look like we have much choice — and the stakes are huge for us living here in Ohio. This is from the Akron Beacon Journal editorial yesterday, “Rescue Detroit“:

Ohio employs more than 250,000 in car plants, supplier industries and dealerships, with more than 70,000 jobs in the northeastern corner of the state. Ohio ranks third in auto manufacturing employment, behind Michigan and Alabama.

Ohio is already in deep economic doo-doo. And if a significant number of those 250,000 jobs evaporate our economy will rival that of a third-world nation, at best.

So the Detroit auto makers are dinosaurs. But they are our dinosaurs. And there is no point fretting over the facts that the industry has been crippled by inept, unimaginative management, billions upon billions in legacy pension and health-car costs — and the Great Recession of 2008 sparked by greed on Wall Street that was so widespread that it even shocked the “Maestro.” We feel his pain. And I’ll guess we’ll pass the big philosophical debates of socialism and free-market capitalism off to the professors in the macro economy classes. Dinosaurs go there to die too. I digress.

Plenty of informative articles about why to support a bailout (no it’s not a rescue plan) or not.

Here’s one, “The Detroit Bailout: Unsafe at any Cost,” from The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

The Detroit-based automakers–General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler–argue that they need more money from U.S. taxpayers. That approach, however, is more likely to extend the status quo rather than lead to reform. A far better approach is to restructure the old-fashioned way, through a formal bankruptcy process if necessary. Bankruptcy–and the prospect of it–would provide both the incentive and means for making the hard and painful choices that Detroit needs to make. Lawmakers should turn down pleas for subsidies that would detour that process.

Here’s an article from Robert J. Samuelson in The Washington Post this morning, “How to Bail Out GM“:

In a booming economy, a GM bankruptcy might be tolerable and useful. It would remind everyone of the social costs of mediocre management and overpriced unionized labor. But far from booming, the economy is declining at an apparently accelerating rate. By one survey, confidence among small businesses is at a 28-year low; in October, retail sales dropped a stunning 2.8 percent.

No one knows what further havoc a GM bankruptcy might inflict. The Center for Automotive Research (CAR) estimates an initial job loss of 2.5 million. The logic: If any of the “Big Three” went bankrupt, many suppliers would also fail; because car companies share suppliers, all U.S.-based manufacturers would suffer parts shortages. American production would virtually stop until new supplier arrangements emerged. “It takes 6,000 to 14,000 parts to make a vehicle,” says Sean McAlinden, CAR’s chief economist. “If you don’t have one, you can’t make it.”

So it will be lame ducks and dinosaurs this week in Washington. And I guess the pressure is on for the turkeys to get something done before they had home for Thanksgiving. Good luck. Let’s hope they can figure out something that won’t require an immediate do-over. Or a repeat of the A.I.G. debacle where it seems like our money is falling into a bottomless well. Just like my retirement savings account. I digress again.

And amid the bluster in DC this week, don’t forget that this isn’t a new problem. Wonder if things would have worked out better if Roger Smith would have taken the time to visit with Michael Moore two decades ago. Remember?

Davis Young and a talk about values

Some of you who read this blog may know Davis Young. Or know of him. Davis is the former head of Edward Howard & Company, a leading public relations firm in Cleveland and nationally. Davis is also a longtime advocate for ethical public relations and management.

I’ve known Davis since my Goodrich days. And I hired Edward Howard to assist in various projects through the years — primarily involving situations that would best be described as crisis management. I had the opportunity to visit with Davis yesterday at the Akron Chapter Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) luncheon in Canton.

Davis talked about values — and about building your company’s good name. At a time when this nation desperately needs public- and private-sector leaders who act ethically — and with a sense of values — it’s too bad that his remarks were limited to only the 40 or so public relations professionals and students attending the luncheon.

So let me share some of his comments with you. They are important. They are timely. And they are not limited to just the practice of public relations. Far from it.

Davis Young — and a host of others, including me in some small way — are talking about what we need to do to restore trust in government, in business and throughout our nation. If we fail at that — the amount of money we keep throwing at Wall Street, large insurance companies and the soon-to-be-bankrupt automakers won’t matter one bit.

Here goes.

Davis Young talking about the importance of communication, values and ethics:

“Like communication, values and ethics also permeate every corner of an organization. And, just as communication is a cornerstone of business success, communication is also a cornerstone of creating the right kind of culture… that goes beyond minimal legal standards to encourage integrity.”

Three key points to take from the presentation:

  • “Good communication and relationship-building are essential to success. You can be a real player if you are perceived to add value to that mix.”
  • “Values and ethics set the standard for success and you should be part of those issues from A-to-Z.”
  • “Nothing good happens unless the CEO is a believer. If you find yourself in a situation where this isn’t the case, go find another job because your CEO isn’t going to change.”

And about values and ethics management:

“Understand that it’s all about the T-word — trust and that trust is bankable. Share the best and worst practices of others with your management team. Hold yourself accountable. Once that is in-place, hold others accountable.”

I’ve written many times here and in other venues that public relations is all about trust, confidence and credibility. It’s really not about blogs, social media, news releases, webinars, face-to-face meetings, etc. Those are tactics. And I’ve mentioned many times how fortunate I was through a nearly 30-year career at BFGoodrich to work with a for a management team led by John Ong who were believers in ethical conduct and in honest, timely and accurate communications.

I’ve also mentioned that my views on management — I never considered myself just the “PR guy” — were shaped by people with integrity. Henry Eaton being one. Dave Meeker, also at the meeting yesterday, another. And I need to always include on that list Davis Young.

As I mentioned on this blog yesterday, if Barack Obama as president can do only one thing I hope he is able to restore trust. And for communications professionals in government, business, education, health care and elsewhere this is another opportunity for us. If we really believe in ethical communications and ethical decision-making as a way to restore trust, then we should be demonstrating this every day in our actions and in our advocacy for what we know is right inside our organizations and out.

President Obama and the crisis of confidence

I was in Washington yesterday, and there is considerable excitement about President-elect Obama and the prospects for his administration. Here’s what I think. If during the first months of his administration Obama can restore confidence and trust in our elected leaders and government he will have achieved plenty. And if he can hold business leaders and others to some higher standard of ethical behavior, then he will have achieved a miracle.

And since the current administration and Congress have basically bankrupted the nation — financially and ethically — he’ll have his work cut out for him. Two examples.

First, few have any confidence that the Bush administration and Treasury Secretary Paulson have any real clue about what to do to stop the financial meltdown. Yesterday Paulson announced he was changing the direction of the $700 billion federal government economic rescue plan. But the financial markets sure don’t have any confidence — or trust him or the current administration to get it right. Dow Jones tanked yesterday 5 percent. And we’re on an elevator heading down — with no stops and no way to get off.

Remember that this was the White House group that went to Congress just a few weeks ago and said give us the money — based on the outline of a three-page plan that was so sketchy that even legislators running for re-election demurred. No way. No trust.

And there was so little confidence in Paulson and the administration even at that point that Congress had to demand strict oversight. Has that happened? No. And if there is any time in the history of this country that elected leaders should be watched — it’s now. No trust. (Note to self and others: traditional news media used to do that.)

Second, I’m sure at some point the federal government — in other words, those of us who pay taxes — are going to have to bail out Detroit and the automakers. Just too many jobs on the line — even though there is something seriously wrong about rescuing those companies unless you are going to rescue every company, big, small and in between. If it’s OK for the big boys, why not Mom and Pop?

Beyond the issue of free-market capitalism (hehe) is the big elephant in the room: People and lawmakers do not trust the management of those companies (or of the UAW) to improve performance and save jobs over the long run — regardless of how much cash they get from the government. Read Tom Friedman’s column in The New York Times yesterday, “How To Fix a Flat.” Talk about lack of confidence in management. Here’s from the column:

How could these companies be so bad for so long? Clearly the combination of a very un-innovative business culture, visionless management and overly generous labor contracts explains a lot of it. It led to a situation whereby General Motors could make money only by selling big, gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s and trucks. Therefore, instead of focusing on making money by innovating around fuel efficiency, productivity and design, G.M. threw way too much energy into lobbying and maneuvering to protect its gas guzzlers.

Then Friedman writes about necessary conditions to any auto bailout. And he mentions a column by Paul Ingrassia from The Wall Street Journal. Note: I worked with Ingrassia when he was the Dow Jones bureau chief in Cleveland many years ago. He was without question one of the best reporters that I had the opportunity to work with. And he has spent years understanding the inside workings of the auto industry. When he says something these days, even an overly sceptical asshole like me pays attention.

O.K., now that I have all that off my chest, what do we do? I am as terrified as anyone of the domino effect on industry and workers if G.M. were to collapse. But if we are going to use taxpayer money to rescue Detroit, then it should be done along the lines proposed in The Wall Street Journal on Monday by Paul Ingrassia, a former Detroit bureau chief for that paper.

“In return for any direct government aid,” he wrote, “the board and the management [of G.M.] should go. Shareholders should lose their paltry remaining equity. And a government-appointed receiver — someone hard-nosed and nonpolitical — should have broad power to revamp G.M. with a viable business plan and return it to a private operation as soon as possible. That will mean tearing up existing contracts with unions, dealers and suppliers, closing some operations and selling others and downsizing the company … Giving G.M. a blank check — which the company and the United Auto Workers union badly want, and which Washington will be tempted to grant — would be an enormous mistake.”

I would add other conditions: Any car company that gets taxpayer money must demonstrate a plan for transforming every vehicle in its fleet to a hybrid-electric engine with flex-fuel capability, so its entire fleet can also run on next generation cellulosic ethanol.

No confidence or trust in management. Once gone, communication alone doesn’t get it back. (Note to Bob Lutz: Blog not working.)  Only actions that truly are in the best interests of the company and all its stakeholders for a long periond of time will restore trust. And if the Big Dogs at the Big Three manage to benefit directly from the coming bailout — that’s shameful. Even the execs at A.I.G. would be embarrassed.

Obama and his team are going to have to restore trust and confidence. And that’s not going to be easy. So let’s hope he brings honorable men and women into the administration who are more interested in public service and good than political partisanship. Let’s hope he brings women and men into government who really do have an understanding of what it will take to get us out of this mess — and who have the courage to tell him what is right. Not just what he wants to hear. And since President Obama and his team are not going to have much money to do anything else — maybe restoring trust and confidence is all that we can ask for. And maybe that would be good enough.