Mike Clement
Mike Clement

In any good story, there’s a point where perception and reality diverge. That's the point where the story that you want to tell doesn’t match the facts on the ground.

Successful communications people know that influence inside the company is everything.

But they also know that influence doesn’t come only from using the traditional tools of journalism or PR.

Influence comes from being a consistent champion for culture and necessary change –– day in and day out.

The need for strong cultural leadership from communications is especially true when a company comes under scrutiny for unethical or illegal behavior.

Timely examples abound. Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have declined to hold anyone publicly accountable for the culture that produced the Cambridge Analytica debacle. The CEO's traditional “I’m responsible” accountability statement wears thin if the CEO isn’t departing.

There are examples of companies doing the right thing—one example being the recent fallout from the Michael Cohen fiasco, where it’s alleged the New York lawyer was peddling White House access to top U.S. companies for large fees.

The appearance of wrongdoing was enough for AT&T to hasten the departure of those responsible for the deal-making between the company and Cohen. The Novartis general counsel resigned as a result of the same scandal.

PR drove HR.

The role of the communications executive is often to serve as the “conscience of the company.”

At times, we compete with the HR executive for this space. But when leadership, HR, or the legal or governance teams fail to act decisively to send a message that certain behaviors will not be tolerated, it is up to the PR team to push for change.

No full-page ad campaign or press release will better communicate a company’s willingness to change than a judicious and justifiable purge.

Leaders responsible for bad behavior or unethical decisions should be fired with fairness and after appropriate analysis and inquiry but make no mistake: They should be fired if the circumstances warrant it.

The head of communications has just as much responsibility for recommending that action as any other executive on the leadership team.

For the most part, the #metoo movement has demonstrated what should be happening to recognize bad behavior: appropriate investigation followed by quick suspension and dismissal.

Why are we not holding other breaches of ethics or inappropriate behavior to the same standard? Certainly, someone at Facebook is accountable for its recent misuse of personal data.

It’s not enough to have the CEO say, “I am accountable, and I am sorry.” Sometimes, leadership has to go.

If the voices in the executive suite are not asking, “Who should be fired?” it’s the role of the PR executive to ask the question.

Our roles are not simply to write the press releases that announce a leadership decision or action.

Our role is to recommend the decisions and actions that will shape the story, strengthen the culture, and bring perception and reality back into alignment –– so that we can tell the best stories about the companies we serve.


Michael Clement is managing director of Strait Insights in Charlotte.