Loyalty to the Company or Loyalty to the Truth

You simply cannot permit yourself to be co-opted into defending the indefensible. It is just good business to be honest and ethical.

It seems that almost every week, another American corporate icon is restating earnings by another billion dollars, has its CEO under fire for receiving a fat compensation package when his company remains unprofitable, and/or is forced to reveal that the SEC has commenced an investigation into its accounting practices.

And when the CEO, CFO or another member of the executive team is under siege, the corporation expects the trusty PR operation to perform amazing feats of damage control. Well folks, I am here to tell you that your acquiescence to this demand is harmful to your career. To be sure, I understand that they are not asking you what to do, they are telling you what to do. Even so, this is treacherous ground for the PR professional to travel and can have profound career consequences.

For starters, let’s take a look at the damage that can result from this kind of damage control. What is essentially a financial and management issue becomes a PR issue the minute you decided to “spin,” defend and otherwise frustrate attempts to get at the truth. By making PR part of the defense infrastructure of last resort, you become part of the problem. If the corporation is already locked into a death spiral toward Chapter 11, you will probably lose your job anyway.

Worse yet, members of the press have a long memory. Put a different way, the press may not always remember, but they never forget. Obfuscation, dodging phone calls, or—worst of all—the outright lie, is how you will be remembered. Guilt by past association could plague you the rest of your career.

It isn’t hard to imagine the choppy waters that will face the PR operatives at WorldCom, Enron and other high-profile companies that have been stained by the recent wave of corporate misdeeds. This is true even though they may have been duped by company management.

In the financial services world, Salomon Smith Barney suffered a bloody nose and a black eye last year when uber telecommunications analyst, Jack Grubman, came under fire after the collapse of WorldCom.

Grubman—who resigned from Salomon last August—had a cozy relationship with WorldCom, so close that he reportedly sat in on the board of directors meetings. He had come under scrutiny for his WorldCom relationship partly because he had given the company a high rating in his research and only downgraded the stock to neutral after it had lost 90 percent of its value.

In many cases, it is possible—perhaps even likely—that the folks within the PR operations at these companies were kept in the dark by those holding the reins of power. But when trouble struck, you can be certain that PR was expected to start building damage-control firewalls at a breakneck pace.

What’s the best approach to take under these circumstances? Leverage your contacts within the company to try and find out what’s really going on. If the answer or even the impression comes back that clearly identifies or hints at impropriety, then an aggressive job search is in order.

Sometimes an even more drastic measure is in order if the job search doesn’t yield an opening somewhere else. If the situation is desperate enough, it may be necessary to quit the job outright and live off of your own resources for a period of time. Even though that may be financially painful, it will hurt a lot less that trying to re-build a career that has the odor of dishonesty.

An appropriate example can be drawn from the world of politics and it reveals the value of protecting one’s good name:

Mike McCurry served as White House press secretary for the bulk of the Clinton Administration but when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke found himself in a difficult position.

At the time, McCurry openly labeled himself as “out of the loop” with regard to the Lewinsky matter and therefore could not respond to any questions about the subject. That way, he kept his distance from the scandal. McCurry resigned in October of 1998, his reputation intact with members of the White House press corps, according to published reports.

These examples drive home a universal point when it comes to your job. You simply cannot permit yourself to be co-opted into defending the indefensible. It is just good business to be honest and ethical.

Loyalty to the company or loyalty to the truth. The decision is yours.

Rob Gelphman is Principal of Gelphman Associates and Adjunct instructor in Marketing and PR at Golden Gate University.

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