Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The 'Very Public' Director

I read in a newsletter for public relations professionals that today is the birthday of Howard J. Rubenstein. The founder and president of Rubenstein Associates Inc. is a counselor to some of the most influential business executives and corporations in the country.

I turned to him five years ago for some thoughts on how a board has to rise to the challenge of managing its own image in an era of increasing transparency. In the old days, a board could hide behind management's screen (or stone wall). The board did not speak for management, much less for itself. The corporation spoke with one voice, that of the CEO.

Well, change is afoot, and Howard recognized that, as should a PR master and maestro like himself. Here is what he put forward in an article that he wrote for Directors & Boards in 2005, titled "The 'Very Public' Public Company Director":

“In many ways, a gauntlet has been thrown down. Each in their own way, regulators, shareholders and the press have signaled to boards and directors that they expect more of them. Those of us who work regularly with boards of directors know that additional responsibility is not something they will shy away from. The vast majority of directors are conscientious, competent, and qualified, and the boards they serve on are engaged, demanding, and committed to representing the best interests of shareholders.
The new skill that boards must cultivate in a more transparent and open environment is the ability to communicate how their good intentions, motivations, and actions work to enhance the strength and value of the company as a whole” (emphasis mine).

Yes — a new skill, indeed. It is one that directors have not had to cultivate as long as the boardroom has been a cloistered chamber. But Howard Rubenstein recognized five years ago the dawning of a new age of disclosure and its implications for public company board members. Thank you for that, Howard, and best wishes for many more birthdays.

By the way, the New Yorker did a profile of Howard, titled "The Fixer," that offers quite a insight into the man and his methods. I won't be surprised if more than a few boardrooms need his and his PR peers' brand of fixing as they cultivate their image management.