A debate has broken out recently that sounds like lovers who have broken up and tearfully proclaim they don’t need the other anymore. Only in this case it's corporate communicators and business journalists.
This lover’s quarrel was brought to life recently with a column in the Washington Post by Steve Pearlstein, “The Death of Business Reporting.” A long-time business journalist, Steve laments the demise of informed and experienced corporate media relations professionals. If you are in PR give it a read; it’s an important piece.
I talked recently to several people on the state of this relationship. A very good journalist told me: “I don’t really need them (communicators), do I? There are other ways to get what I need.” And a senior corporate media relations person told me: “I don’t trust them (journalists) and I don’t need them.”
Both sides have a point. Communication pros have numerous social media platforms through which to tell their organization’s story. Journalists, in an age of “transparency,” have easier and more widespread access to data and sources than ever before.
Regardless of your point of view, a great media relations professional can make a material difference to an enterprise in its reputation and its commercial success. I know this is true because I worked with Rick Kennedy of GE Aviation, the best media person I ever met.
Rick retired recently after 30 years at GE’s jet engine business. He is smart, funny, and, at times, iconoclastic. He loves jazz, blues, baseball, Elvis, and his hometown of Cincinnati, where GE’s jet engine business is headquartered. He’s a former journalist and a bit of a character, which I will get to below. Above all, he is an honest and effective information broker in a high-risk, high-profile business.
Why was Rick so good and so good for his business? First, he knows engines – how they work, how the government regulates them, and how the media covers them.
He didn’t have to check with someone on technical specs, production history, or business numbers. He was the expert. I remember a master class he gave me in why some of GE’s engines were having icing problems at higher altitudes. This had become an investor concern for GE. Rick’s calm, matter-of-fact explanations to reporters was a huge reason why the issue didn't mushroom.
Second, he is naturally, purposefully and sometimes painfully honest. He’d fight like hell with reporters who he thought were being unfair, but with those he trusted, he’d give them the facts, even if they weren’t great for GE. He was building relationships and trust for the long haul.
More than once, Rick pulled me back from the precipice. “Don’t say that, Gary. That’s bullshit,” he’d advise me about a suggested strategy that might win a short-term battle but could cause us to lose the war.
For example, a few years ago when GE was in a very public and heated debate in Washington over funding for a military jet engine, I wanted to go for the jugular with the Pentagon. Rick talked me down like a calm air traffic controller. I think Rick knew we were going to lose this fight and he wanted to protect GE Aviation’s relationships in the Department of Defense for the next one.
Third, Rick is a great – no, a master -- storyteller. He loves the technology of aviation but also has a real affection for the history and lore surrounding it. Watch this video Rick did about the opening of GE’s new advanced composites plant in Batesville, Mississippi, or this one on the history of GE’s engines and you'll see what I mean. Charles Kuralt had nothing on Rick.
Finally, he may be the best crisis communications leader around. As his terrific successor Perry Bradley told me, “Crisis is inevitable when you have an installed base of 37,000 commercial engines holding aloft some 300,000 people at any given time.” Rick’s deep domain knowledge, understanding of what the media wants in the high-intensity moments after an incident, and the trust he earned kept many situations from getting out of hand. No self-inflected wounds from Rick.
Rick’s value to his business was recognized a few years ago by leadership -- "Rick takes big, visible swings" they said in presenting him with the Overall Performance Award. They knew he was more than just the “PR guy;” he was a strategic counselor who, by protecting the Aviation's reputation, made it possible for the engineers, commercial teams, and executives to do their jobs. Rick also recently won the Lyman Award from the Aerospace Industries Association, which honors distinguished career-long achievements in aviation journalism or public relations.
At air shows, engine launches or analyst meetings -- and after business hours -- Rick never tired of talking aviation, playing a few songs on the piano or giving reporters local history lessons. Once, on the eve GE’s annual meeting of share owners in Cincinnati, Rick took a few reporters to a local cemetery to show them graves of local music greats.
When I saw him the next morning, Rick looked a little rough around the edges. Being a corporate guy, I asked him how the discussion about GE went with the reporters. He replied, “I have no idea, but they now know a hell of a lot about that graveyard.”