Before I became a nattering nabob, I spent 40 years as an external counselor, helping launch BellSouth Corporation as the nation’s 13th largest corporation on its first day of operations and as managing director-communications and government relations for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. For three weeks, we operated as a mid-sized Fortune 500 company and then disappeared. Those were two extraordinary experiences.
For my efforts, I was named one of the “100 Most Influential Public Relations People of the 20th Century.” OK, so it may have been a slow century for public relations people, but I learned a lot and thought I would pass along some observations for your consideration. The size of an organization is not as important as how that organization is viewed by its constituents and how well it communicates with them.
One of the founders of the public relations discipline — and it is a discipline when done correctly — was Arthur Page of AT&T, who said in the early 1940s that “in a democratic society, all business begins with public permission and continues with public approval.”
You are off to a good start in Cobb County. You seem to be saying and doing all the right things. You would agree that this is the honeymoon period. You have a school board that can implode on itself at any moment — and will. Its members seem to have more personal agendas than a dog has fleas. Be prepared.
I have been very critical of your public relations department. In all the years I have appeared on these pages, I have never heard from your PR people. Not once. That is inexcusable. However, I was dismayed to see you have moved the discipline down your new management organization. I’m not sure why putting an additional management layer between you and your external counselor improves things. If you don’t trust your external counsel, then find someone you can trust and listen to him or her. The advice you receive as a result is every bit as important to your success as is your legal counsel.
At both BellSouth and at the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, I had equal access to the final decisions of the CEO. Never take legal counsel without commensurate external counsel. A win in the court of law is not always a win in the court of public opinion — O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony are two that come to mind — and that is the court by which your reputation ultimately will be judged.
Also, don’t be your own public relations counsel. CEOs should be out front on basically two issues: The really good news and the really bad news. Don’t overexpose yourself. It looks like you have a strong team in place. Let them do their thing.
One of the biggest failings of organizations in dealing with the public is clear messaging. What two or three key things do you want your constituents to know about you? When BellSouth was formed in the divestiture of AT&T in 1984, we had tons of research on what our advantages were as opposed to the other six companies. It all boiled down to the fact that we were the Right Company in the Right Place at the Right Time. At ACOG, where there was much hand-wringing over or not we would ready to stage the Games, we said we were On Target, On Budget, On Schedule. In both cases, we repeated these mantras until we were sick of them but our studies showed that people got the message.
This stuff isn’t brain surgery. It is mainly common sense. It is being aware that in a democracy our ability to survive and succeed is based on public approval. We can attain that approval by good communications and by listening to our constituents. Your PR counsel should be like an ombudsman: Representing the organization to the public and, more important, representing the public back to the organization. Think about it.
I wish you all the best, Dr. Hinojosa. I have four public school teachers in my family and as our mutual friends in the Cobb legislative delegation will tell you, I am a hawk on public education. Anybody or anything that can improve the quality of education for our children and teachers, I am all for. I think you are going to do that. If you ever want to chat, I am only a phone call away. If I don’t get back to you quickly, it is because I am busy impaling the humor-impaired. That is what Nattering Nabobs of Negativism do.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at email@example.com or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139.