Restoring Trust

The Council of PR Firms executive director Kathy Cripps had a twinkle in her eye as she looked out across the expanse of The Yale Club’s Grand Ballroom in New York City yesterday morning. In spite of these recessionary times, the Council’s annual Critical Issues Forum drew a full house and a fair share of industry luminaries, many of whom are featured in this video.

All the big and mid-sized agencies were there, except perhaps for one, to hear the all-star panel featuring General Electric CMO Beth Comstock, PBS “Nightly Business Report co-anchor Susie Gharib, Morgan Stanley’s Jim Wiggins, retired GM corp comms chief Steve Harris and APCO CEO and Council president-elect Margery Kraus.

The always provocative and engaging Len Schlesinger, now president of Babson College, and formerly a top business executive and Harvard B School professor, handled moderating duties with his usual aplomb.

In the crowd, I was able to spot Harold Burson, MS&L’s Jim Tsokanos, Lou Capozzi, outgoing Council president and Ketchum CEO Ray Kotcher and his colleague Rob Flaherty, president of Ketchum who doubled as the event’s host, Ralph Katz, Andy Cooper and Anne Green of Cooper Katz, Maureen Lippe of Lippe Taylor, Abby Gouverneur Carr of Bliss PR, Lynn Casey of Padilla Speer Beardsley, F-H’s Nancy Seliger, and too many others to recall.

Of course, my trusty digital audio recorder was battery-challenged so I was only able to get a few choice audio bites from the panel discussion (that I thankfully tweeted). The conversation focused on how to re-build public trust in corporate America and the sorry state of the news media. Here’s a random smattering of paraphrased sentiments:

Jim Wiggins (joking): Perhaps GE should manufacture those mind-erasing devices used in “Men in Black”

Susie Gharib recommended that the audience go see Michael Moore’s latest film if only for the simplistic way in which it shows how we got into this mess in the first place.

Jim Wiggins: We ‘get it’ on the issue of executive compensation. Though it will probably not be enough to satisfy Michael Moore.

Susie Gharib suggested Goldman Sachs take its $20 billion in bonuses and “give it to people who don’t have jobs or homes.” (which prompted this PR person to interject from the audience “It would be seen as a PR ploy.”)

Steve Harris: At GM, we’ve trained 10,000 people to use social media, and keep another 15,000 in the loop.

Susie Gharib: I agree with public perception of media as being biased. Old style objective journalism is dead…except at PBS

Beth Comstock: At GE, it’s a fundamental re-set. We don’t see things going back to where they were. One statistic says that jobs won’t return until 2017 in this new re-set world.

Following the panel, we broke for lunch during which David Gergen and Len Schlesinger took the stage. I don’t know if it’s his southern and mellifluous cadence, but one could easily understand why Mr. Gergen has served as an advisor to a handful of U.S. Presidents across both sides of the political aisle.

He compared President Obama to newbie President John F. Kennedy, but acknowledged Kennedy’s command presence during the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis as perhaps the single biggest display of executive leadership in this nation’s history. Here are a few (paraphrased) notable quotables from Mr. Gergen:

Were entering a new normal. The old normal is not returning.

Wall Street and the media are two institutions that have the least public confidence (from the JFK School of Government’s annual study)

Business is not off the hook. It’s on probation.

…not sub-prime mortgages, but sub-prime leadership (citing Bill George’s explanation of why the bubble burst)

This year at Harvard Biz School. students self-organized to take an oath to serve the public good (70% took it)

Was death of Walter Cronkite the passing of an individual or the passing of an age?

We’ve taken another notch downward in last 2-3 years with the growing viciousness of what’s on the blogosphere

The viciousness of blogosphere has migrated to cable, (eg, Olbermann, O’reilly)

If the pendulum doesn’t swing back, we’re going to entertain ourselves to death (on the type of news programming we’re seeing)

All in all, the Council should be proud of the timeliness and overall substance of yesterday’s discourse at the Critical Issues Forum. More tweets can be found by Twitter-searching this hashtag: #CIF09.