I have just read the new book, Rethinking Reputation, by John Doorley and Fraser Seitel, former chief communications officers at Merck and Chase Bank, respectively. The central theme of the book is that reputation depends on good behavior and honest communications. As the authors note, at the center must be what academics call identity, or President Lincoln called character—what one stands for.
Doorley had the opportunity to work for a hero of American business, Dr. Roy Vagelos, when he was CEO of Merck. He tells the story of the torturous path of Mevacor, the hugely successful cholesterol-lowering drug. After initial promising trials, Dr. Vagelos heard about cancer in dogs caused by a similar compound being tested in Japan and then ordered the Mevacor trials stopped. But then he had the courage to make the product available in tightly controlled trials to patients with genetically high levels of cholesterol that threatened death at age 40. It proved efficacious and non-toxic, leading to full-scale trials and huge success in the market. As Doorley notes, Vagelos “believed in transparency before it was a buzzword.”
Doorley and Seitel are brilliant in their critique of the Clinton White House during the Lewinsky scandal. “Kenneth Starr asking Clinton about sex in any manner, shape or form….Clinton responds, it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is….thus was born the modern practice of spin….but the moral of the story is that you can’t possibly win with spin.” To his credit, Mike McCurry, former press secretary to Clinton, reported the facts, and unlike the “spin patrol,” he refused to speculate. The authors thunder, “His personal credibility with the press and the public revolved around one thing; telling the truth…once you lose that, you lose everything.” Without this very clear orange line, the authors argue that we are vulnerable to critics.
I am proud of their concluding chapter on ExxonMobil, which in over a decade moved beyond the disaster of the Valdez spill to “an honest and constructive voice in public discourse, defined by principles and proper action, focused on solving problems.” This journey, led by chief communicator Ken Cohen, began with establishing the problem: using its own research model to track reputation, “Exxon earned low marks. But the company was surprised that on the key industry metric of health, safety and environment, it had few industry peers.” So the PR team sought to close the gap between the negative perception and positive reality by taking part in the discussion. It informally, and without an agenda, meets environmental and human rights NGOs, two or three times a year. Cohen blogs regularly and the company frequently uses its corporate Twitter handle @exxonmobil, which proved invaluable in a 2011 oil spill in Montana.
Companies are going to have to take a page out of ExxonMobil’s book by engaging in public discussion. For example, I attended a debate at the Council on Foreign Relations last week between Prof. Kelly Brownell of Yale University and Derek Yach, former WHO scientist and now consultant to PepsiCo (disclosure: client). Brownell took a very hard line against the food industry, saying that the inherent pressures of shareholder returns push the food companies to find new times during the day to eat (Taco Bell’s ad for the fourth meal at 2 a.m.), move to large container sizes (20 oz. soda), push the food “colonization of the developing world” and introduce the idea of eating on the run or standing up. Yach responded with facts, stating that PepsiCo, for example, had taken full sugar soda out of schools and has made a tremendous commitment to “Good for You” foods, from yogurt to hummus to Tropicana 50 orange juice with fewer calories. In a vote at the end of the meeting, 80 percent of the attendees said that the food companies should be at the table in these discussions.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO
Preview photo from Rethinking Reputation