Remarks from 2018 Page Center Award honoree Bill George

March 26, 2018

Bill George

When I heard about this at first, I didn’t and still don’t feel worthy. But I am deeply honored to be here because I know the importance of the work you all do. I’d also like to recognize my wife Penny who has come in from Minneapolis and is sitting at a table with a group of Medtronic people and friends from Exxon. So thank you all very much for coming.

We live in an odd era where up is down and down is up. It’s like Alice in Wonderland looking through the looking glass where what’s true is fake and vice versa. And that’s why today I think we need to separate the real media, if you will, and the curated media from anyone that just sits down at night at their computer and writes an article to realize just how important it is that we know the truth.

I’ve always felt throughout my lifetime you’re only as good as your word and that as a trained engineer you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. There is really no such thing as alternate facts. It’s really a search for the truth, and in a free society I think we depend upon the media to make this a truly democratic society.

Penny and I really enjoyed seeing “The Post.” I love it. I was in Washington during those years. I would love it if it would get the Academy Award because it really was a testament to the importance of a free media.

I’m going to share tonight with you some ideas that I’ve shared with CEOs. I have taught a lot of CEOs and senior executives at Harvard Business School the last 15 years because I think that we need to pull together— and I hope you tell, those of you that work at corporations, these messages to your CEO—because I think there is nothing more important than corporations and institutions telling the whole story to the media so that the truth comes out. If we don’t, who will?

I have five quick principles I would like to share with you tonight in the hope that those of you who represent organizations will do just that.

First, the truth is always going to come out so you might as well be fully 100 percent transparent. If we’re all that way, we’re going to be a whole lot better off. There’s no such thing as spin. It’s going to work because the truth is going to come out and all you do by spinning things or only telling partial truths or telling the positive side of the story but not the full story you just encourage other people to try to get out the negatives. So I think the opportunity is for candor and to tell your story with a clear sense of purpose.

At Medtronic, I encountered a very awkward situation when I first went there. I had appointed a man as president of Europe who I thought was a terrific businessman. Six months later a general counsel came to my office and closed the door.

I have an open door policy. You know you’re in trouble when the general counsel closes the door. We found out that this very high level member of our executive committee was running a bribery fund. He’d been doing it for some 20 years. We just didn’t know about it. And I can tell you the easiest part was firing him. The more difficult part was me admitting I’d appointed him to the executive committee, because I was fairly new to the board of directors, and that same day we went public with a press release telling the entire story. We told the SEC because we knew we might be in violation of foreign government practices. They later said we were not. But the point is, if you tell the whole truth it’s a one day or one week story—otherwise it can go on for a very long time.

Second thing is: Tell your own story. Don’t let someone else tell it for you. I see more CEOs that are afraid to go on CNBC because of what they’re going to ask. Media people are just like any human beings wanting to convey a story and a message. You need to tell your whole story, and tell the entire story again no matter how ugly it is. And that’s the only way to get it out.

When I was on the Exxon board 12 years ago, Rex Tillerson had just become CEO and about a year later Exxon was known as a climate denier. Rex went to the annual meeting and he said “Global warming is real. It’s caused by CO2 and it’s largely contributed by humans. Now let’s argue about what we’re going to do about it.” And I think that if we can get to that point instead of getting into this back and forth we’d be a lot better off.

Third, I think you have to really, as a company, transform yourself. We went through a very difficult time at Goldman Sachs in 2010 when we had a lawsuit from the SEC. We had hearings from Senator Levin and we had the worst media you could imagine. We went from being heroes in 2008 through the crisis unscathed, to being the face of all evil.

Lloyd Blankfein, to his everlasting credit, instead of getting defensive, formed a business standards committee of 150 senior partners with two very senior partners leading the effort. I was privileged enough to lead the board committee to oversee this effort. Over the series of about 24 meetings, we came to a very detailed strategy. We took the corporation a part from top to bottom, transformed everything, particularly our communications and how we communicated with our customers.

And that has held up. The 39 recommendations that came out of it have been fully implemented, and it’s really held up for the last eight years. I think had we not done that, we would’ve been a little bit like Wells Fargo. We would’ve always been on the defensive. So when you do that, you have to transform yourself. There is probably truth in the problems and you have to correct your own problems first.

Fourth, tell the good news every day. Your company has a sense of purpose. You saw John Noseworthy (Mayo Clinic). Every day he talks about patient stories. Every board meeting we go to, every time we talk, there’s a patient story. You’ve got to tell the story of what your company does because the world doesn’t know what you do and you need to tell them that story every day.

There will always be bad news and the only way to deal with the bad news is to say, “That’s true. We harmed this patient, at Mayo or Medtronic or whatever your companies are. Yes, we had that problem with that automobile, but here’s the many many things we’re doing." You need to do something positive. At Goldman Sachs on the board today we just reviewed the 10,000 small businesses, an amazing effort. We’ve got to be out there telling the positive story so it can’t just be a defensive story. And I think those of you in the public relations field really need to go on the offensive and not play defense, because everyone in the media can see when you’re playing defense.

And I think fifth, you’ve got to be present. I’ve seen so many CEOs come to our classes that don’t want to go on CNBC because of what someone’s going to ask them. So they go in like this (arms folded) and they get programmed by some media training and they say "They’re not going to lay a glove on me" and they come off very stiff. Just be real. These people have a job to do. They ask you a question, so tell the story.

But tell them the deep story. Tell the story behind the story. Tell the nuanced story. Go into the details. If they’re ugly details, share those ugly details, but be real about it. Be authentic.

As you heard Meryl say, it’s not about being charismatic. We’re not meant to be actors. We’re not TV people. We’re just there to tell the story. You can’t just tell it through a press release or by putting your story out to a confidential reporter at the Washington Post or Wall Street Journal. Take the hot media. Take the hot questions. Because that’s where you come across as authentic or not.

I’ll never forget Jim Burke. We’re going to hear from (Johnson & Johnson) in a few minutes, but the second time around on Tylenol was the real key time that we showed the CEOs. And the second time around, four years later, he was really in a sweat when they had a woman die. And the woman’s name was Diane, and he got called in front of the media and he sat down with two reporters. He didn’t have to, he could’ve sent a PR person. But he went himself, he sat there, and you could see the sweat beads forming on his face and he was scratching his head because he was nervous. 

They asked him “What would you tell the mother of Diane Elsroth?” And he said, I would tell her “we never should’ve gone back on the market four years ago.” Now to any lawyer, that’s an admission of guilt. But you know what, the facts hold up in court. He came across authentic and Tylenol is still the leading brand of over-the-counter pain killers today. So I think that by telling your story with no spin, you can really get there.

I have a couple more quick ones as I wrap up here. Your values matter. The values of your organization are conveyed by the sincerity of the conviction with which you deliver the message and the way you live your life every day. And you can spend 30 years building up the integrity of your company and you can destroy it in about 30 minutes, and you don’t get it back. It takes 10 years to get it back. So I really believe that we have to be out there every day.

And finally, I think you need to build a base of friends. You need to have people who care about you. Ann Barkelew got this award last year. She was recognized because of her work at Target and Dayton Hudson when people came after them,  the whole community rallied around them because they had a great base of friends, their philanthropic work and the way they treated their customers.

So those are my short and simple principles for what I think we have to do today as organizations, as institutions, as corporations to engage with the media in a straightforward way and if we do that then we’ll find the truth side of the media and we’ll dominate all the other ones out there.

Thank you very much again for this great honor.


These remarks were spoken by Bill George, an honoree at the 2018 Arthur W. Page Center Awards for Integrity in Public Communication. He shared these words with more than 200 public relations professionals and journalists at the Page Center's second annual awards dinner on Feb. 21 in New York City.