Hearing Voices

Business Casual
Susan Percy

How many times have you wanted to suggest to top corporate folks that they should occasionally try calling their own places of business, unannounced, just like any regular customer? Let them experience the frustration of languishing in “on-hold” limbo or getting shuttled from one useless automated menu to another.

Lately, I’ve added another item to this corporate communications fantasy list, wishing that some of Georgia’s CEOs could hear some of the things their corporate spokespersons actually say on their behalf.

Case in point: A freelance writer, working on assignment for Georgia Trend, was attempting to arrange a telephone interview with the top guy at a large Atlanta-based firm for a short, straightforward, non-controversial story.

The e-mailed response, from the in-house corporate PR guy, was no. But it was more than no. It was no delivered in the most condescending language imaginable, along with a gratuitous lecture on the company’s “culture” of “teamwork and promotion from within” that would apparently preclude the boss from actually responding to this particular request. The PR guy did say he’d be happy to work with us if we’d like to do a major feature story on his company.

Although most of the corporate spokespersons we come into contact with are genuine professionals, we have had a few stonewall us, ignore us, confound us, evade us and even — rarely — lie to us. I wouldn’t expect anyone to work up much sympathy for us. The evasions and refusals are annoying, but they pretty much go with the territory. The fact that we got told no for one particular interview request isn’t especially astonishing. What is surprising is that the corporate mouthpiece went out of his way to be offensive. Why not just no, rather than, no, how could you make such a ridiculous request?

This is, after all, a company that relies heavily on public goodwill for its success and spends a lot of time and money to gain that goodwill. I can’t help wondering if the CEO knows — or cares — what people are saying and how they are saying it on his and his company’s behalf.

Using the e-mail from the huffy company spokesperson as a starter, I talked to some very smart and successful Georgia public relations professionals about effective business communications — how and why they go awry.

The most senior of the experts started laughing when I got to the “culture of teamwork” part of the e-mail. He surmised that the spokesperson was inexperienced and said companies that should know better often entrust their communication function to someone who lacks the background and judgment to speak effectively on their behalf.

The others talked about the role and perspective of the PR person. “Inside” PR people can get too isolated, one veteran said, and spend too much time drinking the corporate Kool-Aid. They are likely to assume that the rest of the world sees things from the company’s perspective as they do and are inclined to spout platitudes rather than communicate.

Another pro said the job of a good PR person is to represent the voice of the real world and provide a reality check for the company and its CEO. If the individual is too isolated, he or she will not be able to fulfill that obligation.

Substituting self-importance for substance and rudeness for candor doesn’t work, they all agreed.

What does work, on just about any level, is a pleasant experience with a pleasant person who is representing a large corporation.

Some years ago when my mother was ill, I found a stack of bills — some of them overdue — that she had not paid. Among them was one from BellSouth. Since the last thing we needed was for my mother to be without telephone service, I called the company in a panic and was promptly connected to a real, live customer service representative. She listened to my concerns, looked up my mother’s account and said, “Now Ms. Percy, don’t you worry about a thing. Your mother has been an excellent customer of ours for a lot of years. We’re not studying cutting her service.”

Every time I read or hear the name BellSouth — whether it’s in a newspaper headline or the return address on a bill that comes to my house — I remember that nice woman who helped me. No lecture on corporate culture from her, just good service and a little kindness.

Susan Percy is executive editor of Georgia Trend.

Categories: Business Casual