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We're listening; but nobody's talking: a corporate communications executive calls on today's leaders to lead. (From Where I Sit).

It's eerily quiet in the executive suite these days--so quiet you can almost hear the earnings drop. And no wonder. What a year it has been for America's corporate management. Who could imagine that CEOs might find themselves standing before shareholders at this year's annual meetings having to quote Richard Nixon: "People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got."

Then again, perhaps these embattled executives have dodged a bullet--for now. Once reporting on the war snagged center stage from corporate governance issues, a bit of a lull emerged in the media's relentless dogging of America's corporate leaders. But dogging will return, and rightly so. We have the right to know that honest and ethical people run the companies we work for, invest in and buy from. For the most part, executives are ethical, and those scalawags who are not, should be run out on a rail. In the meantime, let the 99.5 percent who are trustworthy get on with the jobs we pay them to do.

Unfortunately, much damage has been done. With the economy adrift and the world's capital markets also facing uncertainties, the very executives who should be stepping forward to lead the charge for recovery are too often in retreat. They appear shell-shocked by dwindling sales, demoralized employees, evaporating market capitalization - and the lingering possibility, however remote, that a skeleton in the closet could trigger the next world-class business collapse. Just when we most need leadership from the corporate world, the silence from the executive suite is deafening.

Now, this is neither the first economic downturn nor the first war that business has suffered through. And the lessons that we learn this time around are likely the same ones gleaned the last time we endured a combination platter of recession and war. Specifically, a company committed to maintaining open lines of communication to all of its audiences generally will weather bad times better than a company that bars the door and dims the lights.

We saw this in microcosm a few years ago in the aftermath of the Securities and Exchange Commission's adoption of Regulation Fair Disclosure (Reg FD), which forbids the selective release of material corporate information to a handful of analysts or large institutional investors. Companies that acted in the spirit of Reg FD and took meaningful steps to level the playing field for all investors fared better than those that used Reg FD as a long-awaited excuse to virtually shut down investor communications.

While an overwhelming task, here are some thoughts to open the dialog:

* Start by telling us--your investors--why we should entrust a piece of our portfolios to you. With 11,000 individual stocks we could buy; why buy yours? Tell us early, often and over and over - the three reasons to buy and hold your stock:

* Tell us about your management team, your business strategy, your unique selling proposition. And tell it straight. Don't make us read the footnotes to find out that the sword of Damocles hovers over your neck.

* Tell us--your employees--why this company's best days are ahead of it. And they'd better be, or else, once the economy improves, we'll take the first opportunity to jump ship. Tell us what success looks like and the role we can play to help achieve it; and please: stop calling layoffs "career transition opportunities."

* Finally, tell us--your customers--what you do that can help us survive this mess. Tell us how your products and services will solve our problems, not yours. Help us see around corners at the next emerging challenge and tell us how to turn it into an opportunity--because your competitors are hungry, too.

A CEO I hold in high regard once told me that the most important business lesson he ever learned was taught by a war-weary Marine sergeant in Vietnam: "If you want to make it out here, you've got to learn to shoot, move and communicate." It was good advice then, and it's good advice now.

Chris Atkins, a partner and director of Ketchum's Global Corporate Practice, has for more than 20 years advised corporations on reputation management, corporate communications, investor relations and all manner of crises. Visit the Web site at
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Author:Atkins, Chris
Publication:Financial Executive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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