Specialist Says CEO Openness Is Essential

March 25, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Enron is a good example of what can happen to a company that withholds information.

CEOs, managers and decision makers that are forthright and informative from the start likely won’t have anything to apologize for later.

“It’s no secret that people seek and respond to information access and personal forthrightness,” said Stacy Spitler, principal of Spitler Communications, a local public relations firm serving a wide range of companies of varying size. 

“A CEO has the tools to build a trust bank that can buffer the organization from suspicion and harm in the best and worst of times.”

Communication tools — press releases, newsletters, annual reports and such — will never take the place of personal interaction, Spitler said.

“The simple act of issuing a written statement to the media doesn’t negate making oneself available for comment, just as the president’s letter and the company newsletter doesn’t alleviate the need to walk the plant floor; just as sending a brochure with all the right messages to a client or a prospect doesn’t mitigate the importance of sitting across the table from a client and asking ‘What do you need and what can we do to help?’”

Spitler told the Business Journal she believes the CEO’s role is that of communicator and, as such, the CEO is responsible for communicating information that fosters greater understanding of an issue or an incident. 

Many reporters perceive their role as disseminators of information for the public good, she said. So when a reporter calls a company and, for whatever reason, isn’t given access to a key decision-maker, the reporter is going to start wondering why.

As Spitler sees it, it’s better to keep the flow of information going rather than avoid personal interaction, whether it be with the media or the company’s own employees.

A CEO’s greatest enemy, she said, is suspicion.

She said that a CEO or manager who isn’t comfortable with fielding media questions or who hasn’t had an opportunity to interact with the media, sometimes takes offense or questions the questions a reporter is asking.

“I try to be really quick to explain to my clients that they really share a common interest with a good reporter. The reporter wants to help disseminate information that’s of interest to the public, and the CEO should share that interest.”

That doesn’t mean, Spitler noted, that a CEO should feel obligated to answer a media question that is leading, irrelevant or that crosses the bounds of privacy.

“The question a CEO should be asking himself frequently is pretty basic: ‘Am I doing everything possible to get in touch and stay in touch,’” she said.

When a CEO is faced with a merger or layoff or bankruptcy, if he tries to hide behind his management team, his PR people, or his attorney or the walls of his office, he’s only exacerbating concerns and losing the trust of the organization overall, she said.

And she believes trust — or the lack of it — can make or break a company. 

In the case of layoffs, Spitler said the CEO should promptly address employee concerns and respond to inquiries. She said employees shouldn’t have to learn adverse news about the company in the local newspaper.

“It drives employees crazy to read about new visions or business plans or initiatives in the paper,” Spitler added. “The newspaper isn’t the place to brainstorm business ideas.”

If a merger is involved and a change of ownership is occurring, it’s going to affect the organization’s ability going forward. Keeping employees in the dark will only deter a smooth, rapid transition, she said.

There are a lot of small- to mid-size companies in Grand Rapids and a lot of visionary business owners, Spitler observed.

“Sometimes I find that a CEO who is a great visionary often neglects the follow-through communications that are required to affect action inside his own company.”

The third party perspective of a PR counselor can help determine the point of communications disconnect, if there is one, and help correct it, she said.  A PR counselor also can help a company “explore opportunities to be a little more creative about launching new initiatives.”

In Spitler’s view, it’s really important for business managers to pay attention to the three basic stages of communication: they have to develop understanding, provide access to information and be accessible. 

Developing understanding within the organization requires that the manager communicate the context behind the company’s business goals, decisions and strategies, particularly if change is involved.

Giving people access to information means managers have to determine and communicate whatever information is critical to an individual or group in order to perform effectively.

And being accessible simply means getting personal and staying in touch with people in the organization, she noted. 

As Spitler gets to know her client companies, she said she’s constantly seeking out ways she can be a catalyst or create catalysts for better communications at all levels of the company, internally and externally.

“If the CEO isn’t linked into that process, the communication program will be challenging.”  

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