Commentary by Jonah Bloom

PR People Who Gag Senior Management Are Missing Out

Procter & Gamble, Viacom and American Express Have Right Idea

By Published on .

A few weeks ago Ad Age commissioned an opinion piece from the divisional president of a huge (but struggling) global company. The piece would mirror the theme of a public speech the
Jonah Bloom, executive editor of Advertising Age.
executive had made that, while interesting in that it challenged marketers to think differently, was hardly giving away the secret sauce.

The executive quickly turned speech notes into prose, but before sending the opus to us decided to "FYI it" to the corporate-communications department, which killed it. Not because it was controversial, not because of a bad relationship with this newspaper, but because, in the words of the PR person involved, they could not see "how it would benefit" the company.

Dunderhead communications
What kind of dunderhead communications pro thinks that way? Answer: one who is paid enough to know better.

Before you get the wrong impression, this is not some press-aggrandizing rant about the importance of being candid with journalists. In this era of intense media and regulatory scrutiny it would be a naive organization that didn't carefully consider its message and how that message reaches various constituencies -- and a naive journalist that imagined the world was any other way. Equally, however, having executives speak to the press is an essential component of smart marketing -- CMOs should know that and so should the corporate-communications department.

Gag management
Yet our dunderhead is not alone in his instinct to gag management. Even Coke -- which would be selling

Photo: AP
Comic Jerrry Lewis was also fond of speaking no evil.
brown fizzy water if it weren't for marketing -- has a reputation for shutting out the press and muzzling executives. (One former Coke PR chief was said to mutter the mantra "no news is good news" as he steered executives away from the press.) Toward the end of Steve Heyer's reign as Coke chief operating officer it became obvious that he had been silenced, despite that he was making smart use of the media to help change staid practices, excite analysts and get shareholder buy-in for a necessary evolution in marketing strategy.

It is possible to maintain market leadership without being vocal on industry issues, strategies or innovation. Think Warren Buffett or Goldman Sachs. But most market leaders have earned that tag not only by chalking up the largest revenue or profit margins but also by being seen to offer thought leadership in these areas. Think Procter & Gamble, Viacom and American Express, all of which reap myriad benefits -- and boost their stocks -- by promoting their thinking in the press.

Creating momentum
Consider also Home Depot's John Costello, singled out as a master of this art by Ron Culp, who has headed PR at Sears and Sara Lee and now runs Citigate Sard Verbinnen, Chicago. "When he was at Sears he set the course -- the 'softer side of Sears' strategy -- very publicly, because he knew it would help create momentum internally and draw attention to the change from outside the organization."

"It's not complicated," adds Elliot Sloane, CEO of financial-PR shop Sloane & Co. "If you don't talk, you don't influence coverage, you don't hear what's being said about you and, most importantly, you don't get to articulate your strategy. Why would anyone miss that opportunity?"

Exactly my question.

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