Will Chick-fil-A CEO Ever Learn?

Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy just can’t keep his mouth shut about his conservative stance on hot-button issues. Last summer he spoke out against gay marriage. This week, he did it again, although there may be evidence that he’s slowly learning a lesson.

When the U.S. Supreme Court this week ruled on several issues related to same-sex marriage, Cathy tweeted, “Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen. to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies.”

A short time later, the tweet was removed. Chick-fil-A released a statement that said, “He realized his views didn’t necessarily represent the views of all customers, restaurant owners and employees and didn’t want to distract them from providing a great restaurant experience.”

That is exactly the issue with CEOs using their positions to express political or religious views that have absolutely nothing to do with their business. That’s why CEOs should resist the urge to let their egos take control and keep their views to themselves.

Finally, it appears, some public relations professional at Chick-fil-A headquarters is giving the boss some good advice. It’s just too bad Cathy didn’t seek that advice before the fact.






Honesty is the Only Policy for Great Leaders

Early in my corporate communications career, when I was still learning what the job was really all about, I did something that probably seemed brash and in retrospect looks brilliant. I only wish I could say it was an original idea, but I was simply drawing from the best practices I read about in professional journals.

I suggested that the leaders of our business should communicate honestly.

No spin. No selective communication. Just tell employees the truth, even when it hurts.

They didn’t always take that advice, but most of the times they did. As a result, I believe employees grew to trust senior management more than they used to.

When a layoff loomed, business leaders explained why it was necessary and how it would work. When major changes were coming to manufacturing operations, leaders met with employees in face-to-face meetings to explain them. When business declined, senior management talked about the reasons why and the plan for turning it around. Employees asked tough questions. Leaders responded to them.

This seems like common sense, but even in today’s hyperconnected business environment, many leaders choose to mislead employees rather than to be honest with them. (Daily Voice, anyone?)

Still, many business leaders get it. Last month, Groupon founder and CEO Andrew Mason wrote a refreshingly honest memo to employees about why he was leaving the company. “I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family,” he wrote, using one of the most common cliches in business communication. He quickly added, “Just kidding – I was fired today.”

Mason went on to give the reasons for his firing. “As CEO, I am accountable,” he wrote. Then he set up his successor for success: “This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness – don’t waste the opportunity!”

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, leadership John Kotter tells of another CEO who departed with honest words. It wasn’t because of anything wrong Jack Ma had done as the leader of Chinese web company Alibaba, however. In this case, Ma was a popular and successful leader who knew employees would have a difficult time adjusting to a new CEO. Acknowledging this was not an act of inflated ego, Kotter says, but rather an honest assessment of the situation.

“We want the truth from our leaders,” Kotter writes. “But we have become cynics, accustomed to twisted messages from politicians and company marketing communications so wordsmithed that they lack meaning. These things do not inspire us, or pull us toward someone in a leadership position, with an attitude of wanting to help. They do the opposite. Great leaders have the ability to surprise and reassure people with their direct and honest communication. This is an essential part of what makes them great. And it is especially important in times of big change and uncertainty — such as CEO transitions — where it can smooth the way for the incoming leader.”

In good times and bad, honesty is the way to go. Great business leaders know this.


Yahoo CEO’s Nursery Embodies the Great Divide

First came news that Marissa Mayer, the hard-charging 37-year-old CEO of Yahoo!, banned telecommuting because she feels face time means greater speed and efficiency for the aging Internet icon.

That reversal in workplace policy was hard enough for many employees to swallow. It didn’t seem to matter to Mayer — who famously took the job when she was five months pregnant and then opted for only two weeks of maternity leave — that a lot of working moms depended on the flexible arrangement to help balance their work and personal lives.

Adding insult to injury, however, is the news that Mayer built a nursery for her little Yahooligan adjacent to her office so she could be closer to him while she works all those late hours.

That idea might have sounded great on paper, but even if she paid for the nursery out of her own pocket, Mayer fails to understand the demoralizing and divisive message it sends to employees of a company that is already struggling to survive. To wit: “You minions figure out that whole work-life balance thing for yourselves. As for me up here in the C-suite, I’ll solve the problem by spending some pocket change on a private nursery next to my office.”

At a time when employee engagement could make or break Yahoo!, Mayer’s ill-conceived action is not likely to inspire employees to be more productive or to feel much like working as a unified team. Instead, it’s likely to have a chilling effect on people whose passion and energy Mayer is going to need in the coming months.

Often, business leaders fail to consider the message their actions — not just their words — send to employees. This one will go down as Exhibit A for quite some time.

Yahoo!’s Seinfeld Moment

One of my favorite “Seinfeld” episodes is “The Apology,” in which AA-inspired Jason “Stanky” Hanky apologizes to people he has wronged. Everyone, that is, except for George Costanza, who tries to pry an apology out of Jason for what he considers an insult concerning the size of his head.

Jason offers a sarcastic apology, then later apologizes for it — or does he, really?


I was reminded of this half-apology when I read a memo to employees from Yahoo! CEO Scott Thompson. The company revealed last week that Thompson lied on his résumé, stating that he had received a computer science degree from Stonehill College when in fact his degree is in accounting.

Yahoo! defended Thompson, saying that “This in no way alters that fact that Mr. Thompson is a highly qualified executive with a successful track record leading large consumer technology companies.” Well, yes it does. The leader of one of the world’s leading technology companies shouldn’t lie. And if he lies about his college degree, what else would he lie about?

As Yahoo! scrambled to figure out how to manage the fallout from this embarrassment, Thompson wrote a memo to employees. He does a few things right — talking about how the board is dealing with the issue and trying to refocus employees on the considerable work ahead of them — but then there is this:

I want you to know how deeply I regret how this issue has affected the company and all of you. We have all been working very hard to move the company forward, and this has had the opposite effect. For that, I take full responsibility, and I want to apologize to you.

Thompson has made one of the most common mistakes CEOs, politicians and other scoundrels make when they are caught doing something wrong and try to apologize for it. He apologizes for the fact that his lying has affected the company and its employees, but he doesn’t really apologize for lying.

I wouldn’t blame Yahoo! employees if they felt a bit like George Costanza. They deserve an apology — the right kind of apology for the real offense, not regret for the fallout it has caused.


Great News! CEOs Still Don’t Like Us Very Much

Public relations and communications professionals might be gaining some stature in the eyes of their CEOs, according to the latest Generally Accepted Practices report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The biennial survey included 620 PR and communication professionals in private and public companies, government organizations and agencies.

About 60 percent of the respondents said they’re invited to attend executive meetings while nearly 70 percent said their top executives take their recommendations seriously. Fifty-six percent said their CEOs believe PR and communications contribute to their company’s financial success.

That’s good news because PR and communication functions are like the runts of the litter, always having to fight to get fed and constantly vying for our executives’ attention and appreciation. The fact that more than half report their CEOs feel they contribute to the bottom line is encouraging indeed.

However, it begs some questions: Why do the other half of the CEOs keep communicators around? If they don’t believe PR and communication add any value, why do they keep funding the roles? What about the 40 percent who never get invited to executive meetings and the 30 percent whose recommendations are waved off as frivilous? No CEO in his or her right mind would hang on to a corporate function they don’t believe in or value.

I believe the truth is they do believe in PR and communication. They do value us. They’ll just never admit it.

If we’re doing our jobs right, CEOs will never be in love with those of us in PR and communication. That’s because we’re challenging conventional wisdom in our organizations. We’re pushing our executives to change the nature of their conversations as well as their tone. We’re advocating for the audiences who, more than ever, see through corporate crap and demand that CEOs be real and authentic no matter what they’re talking about. If we’re serious about providing value, we’re a burr in our CEOs’ sides most of the time — but all for the sake of helping our organizations do and say the right things. It’s all about helping our organizations — and leaders — succeed.

CEOs don’t like us very much and probably never will. But they know they need us.


How Communicators Can Aid Employee Retention

In another sign the U.S. economy is improving, a recent survey by one of the nation’s largest recruiters found that 28 percent of employers’ job openings in January were the result of people quitting their jobs, up from 21 percent last July. The Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms this trend, saying that the number of U.S. workers quitting their jobs has steadily increased since the low point of December 2009, in the depths of the recession.

This is good news for workers because it indicates they are more confident they can find a job. It’s bad news for employers because it’s expensive to lose talent and recruit replacements. It’s also bad news for employers because it indicates a shift of power back into the hands of employees. It’s slowly becoming a job-seeker’s market once again, so hiring companies might soon find themselves making more concessions in negotiations with candidates.

There’s something else going on here, though. When unemployment is high and jobs are hard to come by, companies sometimes treat employees like a necessary evil, paring back benefits and perks, imposing more restrictive policies, pulling back on communication activities and becoming less forthcoming with information than they were when times were good. Managers get grumpy because they’re often caught in the middle of this austere environment, and as we know, people quit their bosses more than they quit their companies.

I wrote about this coming shift nearly two years ago and how employee communication could play a role in helping to stave off the exodus. Now it’s upon us and I have some additional thoughts about the role communicators could play in helping our organizations retain talented employees who might be looking for greener pastures.

  • Help to create or maintain a culture of open communication. Hopefully communicators have done this throughout the recession as business leaders pulled back on communicating — because there wasn’t much “good news” to communicate. The business environment shouldn’t dictate what an organization’s communication culture is like.
  • Help position managers and supervisors as trusted sources of information. Middle managers are the linchpins of most organizations and they should be armed with enough information, resources and training to maintain the trust relationship with employees — in good times as well as bad.
  • Encourage business leaders to be out front and up front. This past recession, perhaps more than any other, greatly eroded employees’ trust and confidence in senior management. One way to rebuild that trust and confidence is for leaders to be seen and heard. Employees’ decisions to leave organizations are sometimes based on false assumptions about the condition of the organization or because employees don’t believe its leaders have a plan for success. Now is the time for leaders communicate openly and clearly about how the organization is emerging from the recession and what it plans to do in the next 3-5 years.
  • Communicate about employees’ total compensation package. Without being too obvious about it, find a good time to remind employees of what the company offers them beyond base salary or hourly wages. Before open-enrollment time, tell employees about some of the “hidden benefits” they might not know about. Find ways to remind employees why it’s good to work for the organization (if, indeed, it is — don’t put a turkey in a tuxedo and pass it off as high class).

Hopefully, your organization isn’t playing “catch up” now that better times appear to be on the horizon. Making “good will deposits” in the bad times is the best way to ensure your best employees stick around when it’s easier to leave.


Faith Gives Hope for Communicating with Passion

This weekend I said goodbye to one of my two best friends. I shared some personal thoughts about Faith Eury with my Facebook friends — who she was, how we became friends, why I loved her and what she meant to me. As I’ve thought about her over the last few days, I realize there’s something I can say about her life that is relevant to communicators, so I want to share it here.

Faith was a communicator herself. That’s how we became friends — she worked for a client I served as a consultant 10 years ago. A friendship blossomed, then deepened because of some shared experiences including a history of anxiety attacks. I had been through them before and tried to offer encouragement that she could overcome them. Social anxiety is more common than many people know and attacks can be debilitating.

Faith was an effective communicator because she could cut through extraneous information and get to the essence of a message. She was that way as a person, too. There was no fluff with her. She cut to the chase.

On a spring morning nearly three years ago, I took Faith to the hospital because her primary care doctor told her she needed to go right away and she shouldn’t drive herself. I stayed with her through a long day of examinations and tests that resulted in a diagnosis nobody wants to hear. She had Hodgkin’s disease, a blood cancer that is survivable with chemotherapy. She endured the brutal treatments with courage and grace.

But she did more than just endure. While still in treatment, Faith organized a team to walk in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night event in Richmond, Va. Not only did she organize the “Faith’s Hope” team, but it raised the most money of any team in the walk. Over the next two years Faith would lead the team to raise more than $16,000 for blood cancer research. In addition, she helped coordinate events for the LLS and spoke to school groups and others about the importance of research to the fight against cancer. The LLS in Virginia honored her as its Volunteer of the Year in 2010.

All this from a woman who suffered from social anxiety.

Faith and her pal Henry

I’ve thought a lot about how Faith was able to pull it off. Where did she find the courage to overcome her fears and speak publicly about her Hodgkin’s disease? Why didn’t the prospect of getting up in front of total strangers paralyze her? Why did a woman who was intensely private open up her life to not only friends but people she did not know?

It’s because Faith was passionate about her topic. She lived it. She experienced it deeply. It was part of her. When she spoke or wrote about it, she was communicating from the deepest part of her soul.

We communicators can learn something from that. Yes, even in a business context, it’s possible to communicate with as much passion. In business we rarely communicate about life-and-death issues like cancer. But as we write speeches for executives, we can try to pull the passion out of them. As we interview people for a feature story on the company intranet, we can ask them questions that get at why they care about the subject, using real words instead of corporate-speak. We’re working with people, after all, who hopefully live life in a real way and experience things deeply. Sometimes I think we just don’t work hard enough to get to the essence of the message.

If a woman like Faith can cast aside her fear and talk honestly about something she cared about that affected her, why can’t we get our clients to cast aside theirs and talk honestly about things that affect them and their audiences?