Localized cultures often evolve at companies, for better or worse. Most former Enron and WorldCom employees I’ve spoken with say that the corporate cultures at both companies bred the behavior that ultimately resulted in far-reaching scandals. The common refrain I’ve heard from these ex-employees is that no one tried to change the corporate culture before it was too late. In a perfect world, the executive suite defines the corporate culture — and fixes it, if need be. If no one is paying attention on the executive level, one might hope the human resources department would step in. What I’ve found, however, is that public relations departments are best when it comes identify problems — and helping to rectify them as well.
For example, a former employer once had a problem, and it was caused at the executive level. Executive behavior created an atmosphere of distrust among employees, and the corporate culture destroyed what had been a genial work environment. The human resources department carried out the executives’ orders, and thus acted in concert with the executives. The atmosphere at the job became oppressive, so much so that employees spent more time looking for a new position than doing their current job. The press caught on to the problem, no doubt alerted by either a competitor or an unhappy employee, and our public relations department began fielding calls on the matter. At that point, something rather miraculous occurred.
The public relations department could see some big problems coming down the pipe thanks to probing questions from journalists. The public relations staff were also employees, of course, and in the middle of the same negative situation as the rest of us. They decided to take control of the situation by conducting some internal polling and opening up communication lines between the executives and the employees — basically applying an internal public relations strategy. It took some time, but the corporate culture eventually swung around to a happy medium between the old and the new cultures.
A former PR person I spoke to at one company that recently emerged from a scandal agrees that public relations departments can play a central role in changing a corporate culture for the better, because they are uniquely positioned within an organization.
“PR people have some of the best information flow in the company, and they often interact with executives,” he said. “They’re also worker bees just like everyone else, so they have a good idea of what’s going on in the lower levels. We also know better than anyone else what the public perception of the company is and what the media is writing and saying about us.”
The PR person, who has since started his own crisis communications firm, said that being “the barometer of corporate culture” is one most important tasks for any public relations department, because “oftentimes HR people are sheltered and employees are not always truthful with them.” While a change of leadership can often be an important step toward changing corporate culture, a top-to-bottom approach to change is too time-consuming.
“You can get rid of executives, but who do you have to replace them?” he said. “You need people inside the organization to identify the problems first. You can’t wait for the media or some consultant to come in and tell you that there is a problem. If you’re inside the organization and can’t identify the cultural problem, you’re either part of the problem, or you’re not very bright.”
When corporate culture explode in crisis, it’s left to the public relations department to clean up the mess. While it’s difficult, a proactive approach to changing problems within corporate culture can stave off these crises. It’s better than the alternative, which is one day having to explain to the public and the media why no one noticed the problem beforehand.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.