Thursday, February 5, 2009

Boards: Down Those Jets, Up That PR

I've asked the question privately to myself, and now I'm going public with it: How is it that the Citigroup directors are still warming their boardroom seats? 

Maureen Dowd's recent column on the "Citiboobs" was the tipping point for me. After reading it, see if you don't agree that this question cries out for an answer after all that the shareholders, the financial markets, and the taxpayers have been through with this lumbering carcass of a bank. Such outcries will come, I'm sure, at the annual meeting this spring.

It appears that not only is there a lack of financial savvy on this board to have kept Citigroup from virtual insolvency, but the corporate jet fiasco indicates there is not a lick of PR sensibility either. (Jet illustration by Jean Kristie.)

I teach PR as an adjunct instructor at Temple University, so I am doubly tuned-in to stinks like this. In fact, one of the early articles I published after becoming editor of Directors & Boards was a 1982 piece I titled "The Missing Director," which argued that boards need a greater PR awareness of their actions and thus more boards should have PR executives on them. "There would be fewer unpleasant surprises in terms of hostile public reaction to corporate moves because the communicators were in at the beginning," stated the author, Gerald Voros, who was then president and COO of Ketchum Communications.

The argument still holds, more than ever in today's crisis environment. Directors can't count on the accomplished executives sitting around the table with them to be PR smart. They should be somewhat PR savvy if they've gotten to this point in their careers. But boards so often exist in a cloistered chamber that seems to make them tone deaf to public perception and reaction. Combine that with the natural reluctance to push back against management and you've got a combustible mix that's perfect for uncorking PR disasters.

With the board on the line the way it is these days, here are two suggestions: recruit a top PR exec for your next board opening; or, failing that, the board should start getting more face time with the organization's top PR counselor. Maybe that person needs to start sitting in on board meetings. The Citiboobs could have used such an extra set of eyes and ears in the boardroom to shoot down the TARP jet and warn of other miscues from years of questionable oversight.