The Bull Dog Reporter

 June 24, 2008

Ethics Starts at the Top: PR's Proverbial "Seat at the Table" Should be at the CEO's Right Hand

By W.T. "Bill" McKibben, Senior Partner, Business Ethics Practice, The Great Lakes Group

Too often, we communications types are the last to get involved in corporate ethics issues. Crisis management too often is a case of too little and way too late. When the wheels are falling off they call us in and expect us to make it go away. Even then we are fed bits and pieces of the mess in some vain hope that keeping us in the dark will keep the lid on the problem.

Some feel that what we need is a "seat at the table." That somehow if we are in the room when the flames erupt, we will be better able to put out the fire. In truth, that's not much better than sitting in our cubicle tapping out crisis plans or press releases and wondering when the fire alarm will go off.

The hell with a seat at the table. I want "the" seat at the table at the right hand of the CEO as a trusted advisor. I want to be in a position to quietly kill it when a harebrained idea pops out of somebody's mouth. I want to be the first one the CEO calls when an issue arises. I want to be there and have a voice in the plans and policies. I don't want the legal types making all the decisions on issues involving crises and reputation. If what you can get away with is to be the norm, then all the crisis management in the world won't help.

Corporate communications is the canary in the coal mine. We are the ones who need to be in a position to sniff out the first whiff of anything that can damage corporate reputation. But unless we are at the top of the ethics food chain helping to form the policies that guide the organization, we are not going to be able to deal with problems that occur. And in the best of companies, problems occur. Sometimes, circumstances that we cannot control envelop us. That happened to Jet Blue when an ice storm grounded their planes at JFK. Candor, humility, a great communications team and their reputation for doing the right thing saved them.

Sometimes, an employee does something really dumb. That happened to Whole Foods when their CEO stupidly blogged under a pseudonym. Usually, it's some less responsible individual or group of individuals. Yet if policies and guidelines are clear, it's not hard to show these instances in their true light, even when the CEO does something incredibly stupid.

Those who rely on walking the edge of the law or depend on the bottom–feeding spin merchants in our discipline eventually get what they deserve. Those who rely on transparency, candor and a dedication to doing the right thing actually build the kind of trust that grows and sustains great organizations. Unfortunately, some really good companies still aren't ready to take that final step and open themselves up to all their publics, all the publics they should be relating to. That's what "public relations" really means: relating to your publics.

W.T. "Bill" McKibben is senior partner, business ethics practice, with The Great Lakes Group in Buffalo, New York. Check out his book, "Play Nice, Make Money", www.Ethics– He can be reached at 716.883.4695 or