An Open Letter to Harold Burson: Reputation Management Fulfills PR’s Highest Calling

Put yourself in my shoes: A few hours before you’re scheduled as the closing speaker at a professional conference, you listen as the luncheon speaker – a true legend in your field – begins talking on a theme that is very similar to your own presentation.

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That’s just what played out this past Saturday in Houston at the Texas Public Relations Association’s annual conference. Harold Burson was the luncheon speaker. Named “the century’s most influential PR figure” in a survey conducted by PR Week, Burson is the architect of the largest public relations agency in the world today, Burson-Marsteller, and has had so many accomplishments and amazing experiences – beginning as a U.S. Army correspondent covering the Nuremberg Trial of Nazi war criminals.

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Like everyone else in the banquet hall, I sat in rapt attention as Burson spoke about the state of our profession and his profound misgivings about the current trend away from the term “public relations” in our own titles in favor of “communications.” The negative perception in the public toward “PR” began with Richard Nixon during Watergate, Burson said. “Communications” is a much more benign descriptor, avoiding all the spin-doctoring connotation associated with PR.

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But “communications” as a title of our function sells public relations short, he said. We are more than just the mouthpiece or the megaphone for our companies. Our most important function, Burson declared, is in providing counsel to our organizations.

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That’s when I really began to squirm, because that’s exactly what I planned to speak about three hours later. But mercifully, Harold Burson, left that thought hanging in the hall (although he talks about it further in his lastest posting on his blog), while he recounted several personal anecdotes from his amazing career, wonderful stories that reaffirmed the power of what we do. We gladly rewarded him with a long, standing ovation.

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And so Burson’s hanging curveball proved a most gracious gift to me as closing speaker; I couldn’t have asked for a better set up, and so I stepped up and tried to hit it out of the park in his honor.

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My presentation was titled “Reputation Management: beyond the seat at the table.” I talked about the evolution of our profession away from being perceived as mere mouthpiece or mop-up crews. At most companies, PR has gained respect because we’ve earned it – as antennae picking up signals from the public and the external world, as the conscience of the organization urging it do the right things, and as megaphone articulating a clear and distinct message to the consuming public.

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But even that evolution too often leaves PR with a marginalized seat at the big table, I said. We can and should do much more to lead our companies to success. The key is in reputation management. When company leaders come to understand that reputation is the company’s most valuable asset, they will increasingly value those who can actively and successfully manage reputation.

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Reputational momentum defines the art of the possible of nearly every other goal of the business or organization – sales, profits, retention, recruitment or fund-raising. If your reputation is on the rise, achieving your other goals is so much easier. Conversely, a poorly managed crisis leading to a significant drop in reputation can capsize even the company’s most valiant efforts to achieve its other goals.

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This concept is so unquestionably true that it will become impossible to ignore, I said. And then I repeated a two-phase prediction I first made on this blog back in December: that five years from now the executive position of Chief Reputation Officer will be common in the C-Suites of major corporations in every industry, and that in 10 years, the Chief Reputation Officer will be just as likely as the Chief Financial Officer to step up and succeed a departing Chief Executive Officer. Why should the chief bean counter have a lock on the path to CEO, I asked, when the number of beans to be counted is predicated by the company’s reputational momentum?   

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And so I’m publishing this “open letter” to Harold Burson today with the hope that I have in my own small way delivered a fitting answer to the issue he raised in Texas. Thanks in no small part to the brilliance of people like Burson, our profession can now look forward to amazing days ahead as we move from being seen as mere communicators to being reputation managers.

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- Jon Harmon

   

Comments

  1. Fascinating – and I believe you are right about the Chief Reputation Officer. However, that has to be the level of reputation management. PR cannot possibly manage reputation alone or at a low level within an organisation. The potential of others to cause a crisis means that unless PR is able to advise before problems occur, it will forever be sweeping up – and that isn’t reputation management in the pro-active sense that I think you’re suggesting.

  2. Perilocity says:

    Reputation Management

    So a PR consigliere sounds good to me.

  3. Hsu says:

    About idea of the Chief Reputation Officer, I have a question: If every department of the department can work well and ethically, the organization will gain reputation spontaneously. If so, does an organization still need Chief Reputation Officer? As the former comment mentioned, PR cannot possibly manage reputation alone or at a low level within an organization.
    Moreover, I am wondering how we should define the relationship between PR and Chief Reputation Officer. The hierarchy — will public relations belong to the reputation department or the reputation management is a part of public relations or they are the same thing, Chief Reputation Officer just a new noun?

  4. Jon Harmon says:

    Interesting points, Heather and Hsu. Yes, the CRO is the focal point, the advocate for reputation, but ideally the whole organization comes to understand the importance of reputation enhancement and this understanding is evident in all their decisions. Reputation should be a key consideration in every executive’s performance objectives. It is no different, really, than money management. Every organization in the company, and every manager in each of those organizations, needs to understand the importance of managing their financial performance (meeting their budgets, helping to drive revenue, etc.) – but the company still needs a Finance organization and a Chief Financial Officer to champion financial performance throughout the company. So it is with reputation — the company needs a Public Relations staff and a Chief Reputation Officer to champion reputational performance while leading efforts to instill reputational responsibility throughout the company.

  5. Thanks Jon – I agree absolutely. Maybe seeing themselves in this strategic way will also encourage PR practitioners to see the CEO function as part of their career path.

  6. Brandon Pritchard says:

    With all of the focus now on corporate social responsibility and ethical interaction with the public, it seems that any organization without a CRO and a strong PR department should seriously consider closing shop. I agree that too much emphasis has been placed on removing the pejorative from the PR label in trying to become a “community of communicators.” If the overriding task of a PR department is to be the ethical thermometer in any organization, then why not call us what we are; Public Relations?
    On a slightly different note…Chief Reputation Officer has a slight…facist / propagandist flavor to it. We might want to consider a “softer” name. Perhaps Chief Ethics Officer, or Chief Responsibility Officer, or Chief Ethics and Responsibility Officer (add another letter to underscore the importance). I’m going to have to think on this one a bit more.

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