Categories: Trust and reputations
13 August 2010
Real-life boss tops Martin Lukes for silliness
Here’s a tale highlighting why the C-suite requires speechwriters. Lucy Kellaway at the FT was accused of moving too far from reality when she covertly inserted the words of a true-life financial services chief into the mouth of her satirical character Martin Lukes.
Kellaway’s cheeky cut and paste of a supposedly considered piece of internal corporate communication provoked a flurry of emails, saying things like:
“I’ve just read the latest Martin Lukes column and it wasn’t funny. I think you’ve just taken him too far from the real world. The stuff about Twilight was just silly. Can you please make him closer to real life in future?”
For those not in the know, Martin Lukes is the former chief executive of a-b glöbâl, released from prison in Florida, reunited with his BlackBerry. Here’s some of the less controversial codswallop Martin Lukes usually conveys:
“Hi Nitin – A quick heads-up on this incredibly exciting project: the roll-out of a Hippocratic oath for every co-worker.”
“Disastrous meeting. Bloody CFO obsessed about ?IF! delivering value. Can you send him Oliver’s report – it doesn’t add to the sum of human knowledge, but he seems to want proof of output …”
“Hi Adrian, A couple of pointers following our useful meeting just now. I know you are concerned about the P&L implications of the Employee Hippocratic Oath, but it seems you have neglected to consider that it will pay for itself by encouraging staff to steal fewer pens and paperclips.”
You get the point, I hope. Anyway, the words of billionaire hedge fund chief Tom Barrack to his staff at Colony Capital described his “personal breakthrough”. He told them in an email how, after a tough couple of weeks, he took some “yacht time” and chanced upon his daughter’s copy of Twilight. He wrote:
“I don’t get it … but I feel it. Taking the agenda-less time to absorb a point of view that I had ignored while loved ones around me relished it was an oasis for my soul.
“I feel renewed and refreshed, having gotten out of my comfort zone and experiencing something so totally out of my normal realm.”
After rambling on about love, anticipation and vampires, he resorts to what one guesses he rates as a rabble-rousing conclusion:
“Move your cheese!!!! … The earth is turning on its axis. Planets and moons and suns are in orbit. Gravity is pulling and tugging, and molecules and quarks are warring inside of us. We need movement to live …”
“It is hard for us to dream … it is time for all of us … to spend more time outside the strict arithmetic cadence of our business … we must really find the ‘moment’ …”
There’s a simple lesson here. Running a company is best left to the likes of Mr. Barrack, who is clearly a world leader at directing hedge funds. PR, however, is best filtered or produced and managed by professionals. Every C-suite needs access to an experienced wordsmith who leads their executive communications. She, or me if it’s a he (please forgive the shameless plug), needs to have a sound knowledge of business issues, sharpened by years in the front-line.
But before I disappear into the Twilight Zone, I’d like to remind readers of my debate with Neville Hobson, where he put the case for allowing (encouraging) corporate blogging online to be personal and unmediated by PRs, and I replied that it must be kept corporate, but made human: Corporate blogging: now it’s personal? I now feel vindicated by this example of how the personal in the corporate sphere can become pathetic when it gets divorced from professional oversight.
There’s so much jealously of executive pay and bankers’ bonuses that this episode is a timely reminder that to become wealthy these people must agree to voluntary imprisonment (why else would a short break and some teenage fiction be viewed as such a revelation?).
Your point is a good one: the PR adviser should be able to see the organisation outside-in as well as inside-out.
Parody and paradox in the age of celebrity – what would Andy Warhol have made of the megabytes of fame that any idiot intent on being take seriously or was that just being noticed.
I am just 14 months into the turnaround and resturing of one of those businesses loaded with debt in the pass the parcel period of venture capital excess. It is difficult to believe the transformation made in a highly regulated business with 47 different operating units around the country. People talk to one another across the business, the whole business has agreed on what it does best and why and can tell you. Its been done without mindbullets or slogans, self serving mission statements or tweets. A high quality turnaround team focussed on financial performance, investing in corporate, employee, community and marketing communication through the people in the business.
Now that’s what Lucy should be writing about – but theres no sex or book and paper sales in that
is there. Paradox and parody worth thinking about public relations as part of a well managed business strategy can achieve so much. Or is no-one convinced that we need well run operating private and public sector organisations.
We need mind bullets like a hole in the head
No, no no – Paul. Enough of the professional PR person creating personalities and writing words for idiots at the top of companies. Being competent at communications has to be viewed as a core competency for senior executives, not something that can be covered up with a bit of media training and someone else writing their words. By all means use the professionals for a bit of polish and for their expert advice – but having a PR baby-sitter whenever the senior exec needs to communicate is ridiculous. If they are so stupid as to buy into twaddly-gook language, then let everyone hear them.
I’m not expecting senior executives to be perfect at everything – and of course, they rely on experts in matters of law, finance etc. I’m also not saying that they have to be brilliant communicators at expense of other abilities.
But surely it’s not too much to expect that during someone’s career they have learned how to communicate? Isn’t the acceptance of poor skills here simply evidence of a failure for PR to ensure that communication, relationship building and a higher understanding of how reputation is made and lost are recognised and valued at the top? We won’t get that by being number one snot-wiper upperer!
Heather, in my experience Executive Communications does more than polish text, offer advice and babysit. It offers added value that helps build and sustain reputations, not least when it comes to thought leadership, messaging, positioning and advocacy. Your comment under values the service PR provides, or at least should provide. For instance, learning to communicate well – which most CEOs do – is not the same thing as acquiring a PR brain or expertise. PR is just one of many professional functions – such as legal, accountancy, HR and marketing – that are at the disposal of the C-suite. Some of them form part of the C-suite itself because of their mission-critical function. Great management, like great companies, is a team game because a corporation is a collegiate body by definition.
The point is, surely, that PR’s can keep the bosses’ feet on the ground. Isn’t that the surprise? Time was, PRs thought they were “spinning”: all sorts of facades were on offer, each as compelling as the last. Then PRs thought they were helping bosses be or sound really, really human by getting them to emote and empathise.
Then Lucy Kellaway makes the proper joke: she reminds us that being quite powerful in this or that sphere can render one terrifically dangerous when let loose outside the comfort zone.
Too much time at the front of airplanes (let alone in private jets) is apt to make CEOs as silly as movie stars, and for the same reason.
From my own experience, I would say that lots and lots of people live in bubbles these days. PRs (and a lot of my work looks like PR) have to remind powerful people that lots of what they say sounds really awful when it’s not said to someone they can fire, kill, or at any rate demote.
Powerful people need to decompress, like divers back from the deep. But they also need, like soldiers back from the front, to remember their manners.
I tell them that they need a verbal beating up before they risk speaking in public. It doesn’t take long, but it must be brutal.