Oral Histories

Peter Debreceny

Interview Segments on Topic: Code of Ethics/Mission Statement/Credo

Peter Debreceny Biography

Peter Debreceny, a consultant with the Chicago-based strategy execution firm Gagen MacDonald, and former vice president of the Corporate Relations Department of Allstate Insurance Company, has more than 30 years experience in public relations and integrated communications. Debreceny has had a distinguished career in both corporate and agency life and has practiced in New Zealand, Australia and the United States.

Debreceny joined Gagen MacDonald in 2007, specializing in change management, corporate reputation and social responsibility strategies. In addition to leading several of the firm's client engagements, he started its social media and CSR practices.

Previously, Debreceny was vice president of Corporate Relations at the Allstate Insurance Company where he was responsible for internal and external communications and where he won a Silver Anvil award for his pioneering work in stakeholder engagement and corporate reputation management.

Earlier in his career, he led communications for New Zealand's first two America's Cup yachting challenges in Perth, Australia and in San Diego, for which he also won a Silver Anvil. He also led the communications campaign for New Zealand's first successful environmental campaign and was a senior member of the group that organized the New Zealand entry at the 1988 World Expo in Brisbane, Australia.

Debreceny is a 2009 inductee to the PR News Hall of Fame. He has served as a trustee of the Institute for Public Relations and was chair and co-chair of the Institute from 2004 to 2008. He is chair of the Commission on Global Public Relations Research and a trustee of the Center for Global Public Relations at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He was recently awarded the 2010 Distinguished Service Award by the Arthur W. Page Society.


Interviewer:   What’s the value of new media and social networking for employees? Why should corporations and CEOs encourage employees to engage in this activity?

Debreceny:   It would be great to see CEOs who do encourage employees to engage in this activity. I don’t think enough CEOs understand it and not enough encourage their employees to engage. Let me just step back a little bit. I think there is definitely a change happening in how companies and their work force interact with each other. So who is an employee anymore? Again I’m going to use Allstate as an example. We have agents that if you’re an Allstate customer you deal with, who are independent business people in their own right, so they’re not employees, but they represent Allstate. Those agents have their own employees. Again, they wear an Allstate badge and an Allstate tee shirt, and as far as you are concerned what is the difference between them and somebody who’s really an employee? When you pick up the phone and you call an 800 number; you might get to a call center in the U.S. and it might have Allstate employees there; real employees, or it might have contract employees who work for some other company but are acting on behalf of Allstate and as far as you’re concerned, that’s Allstate. But the call center may be in the Philippines or in India and you’re still dealing from your point of view with Allstate. So when you think about the organization and the folks who make the delivery of its strategy possible, it always just used to be employees for most companies, but now it’s not employees at all. The whole nature of the work force has changed considerably. So that means that for a company how do you communicate with all of those people and how do you get them all to understand your mission and your vision and how they might participate in it and what’s in it for them, that also has to change. Particularly if they have no direct line of reporting relationship, then you can’t mandate, you can’t be in command or control even if you thought the command or control was a good idea, which I don’t. So that’s a really big change that’s happened in the last few years.

There are other big changes. The changing of the demographic profile of most companies’ work forces is dramatic. As us baby-boomers have begun to roll off the scene and Gen Xs and Gen Ys come in to replace us, now you have way different expectations. A Gen Xer has a completely different expectation than a baby-boomer does about how they’re going to relate to the organization that they go to work for whether it’s as an employee or a contractor or in whatever capacity. They have expectations that they’re very definite about and if those expectations are not met, they’re going to go someplace else. So the whole post-World War II Command and Control structure inside organizations I think is changing very rapidly or if it’s not, it has to. Organizations have to make the changes because they’re going to lose their competitive edge otherwise. So what’s replacing command and control? Well, dialogue is replacing command and control. It’s not just top down anymore. It’s top down and bottom up, and ideally, across as well. Social media is a wonderful enabler of that strategic change which has to happen, I would think very well. How managers relate to their teams can’t just be command and control if you really want to maximize the potential of the work force.

So, I think you have to see social media in a broader context. It gives us lots of wonderful toys to play with, but there has to be a reason to play with the toys. The reason, I think inside the employee work force environment inside a company is because it enables a different style of management. It’s a style of management where there’s much more involvement and participation at all levels of the organization where leading can come from anywhere inside that team. Anybody can have a voice and make a contribution, and you’re expected to. You can’t just wait now to be told what to do. People want you to put your hand up and say we should be doing this and then to lead that opportunity. Social media is a great tool to enable that to happen. The only caveat that I would throw into that though, and I’ve thought a lot about this and at Gagen MacDonald we do a lot in this area, you can’t impose inside a culture something that the culture is going to spit out. So the introduction of social media into the organization can be a great leader of cultural change inside an organization, but you can’t oppose something that is so radically different from the existing culture that that culture spits it out. That won’t work. In fact, that’s a dangerous thing because then all the potential power of the social media inside the organization gets lost forever. People say well we tried that and it didn’t work; it wasn’t us so we’re never going to do it again. So don’t think that you can have a revolution inside your internal communications system just through introducing social media. It’s got to be an evolution, which is staged and appropriate to the existing culture, but is a leader of culture change and a leader of employee engagement.

Interviewer:   Let’s talk a minute about code of ethics. Are companies’ values different from a code of ethics? Do you see a difference between them? There is a little bit of discussion going on between corporate values and really identifying and describing those values and those who rely on a set code.

Debreceny:   Yes, well a code of ethics is worth about the value of the paper on which the code of ethics is printed. Even assuming that the code of ethics is being, that piece of paper is being put up on the wall, what really matters is behaviors – behaviors are driven by the DNA of your organization. So I’m sure Enron had a code of ethics, but it didn’t have behavior which corresponded to that code of ethics. Many companies and many organizations in all parts of the world have codes of ethics, which they don’t live by. Values more describe the DNA of the organization and the guiding principles that will drive behaviors. But even then not all companies that have a list of values live by those values. So the truly authentic companies are those that have values that everybody understands and lives by and that guide behavior and a code of ethics that are drawn from those values and correspond to them and that people follow because they want to follow it, and with the right prescriptions in place to make sure that you try and catch the odd number of people inside an organization that are not going to follow them. So if you look at the companies that we think about as really doing this stuff well, take Johnson and Johnson, they have a credo. It came out during the depression. It was written by Robert W. Johnson II during the depression. They live by their credo. They take business; that describes their values; they take business decisions by their credo. When Tylenol happened, their company took the business decision that they didn’t need to take, because it’s what the credo told them was their values and they were committed to living by their values. That’s a company that you think of as being truly authentic. But it’s authentic because it knows who it is and it behaves the same way. Here’s I think the thing about public relations: the term public relations and the description of the profession has become an ugly term. People use the term disparagingly and they talk about us in disparaging terms and why is that? It’s because we’ve allowed that to happen. Firstly, because we’ve allowed people to get away from the definition of what public relations was, your relationship with public, and equate it to publicity.

We should never have allowed that to happen. Then, inside the profession, if you can call it that, we’ve left people do their thing and we’ve let them get away with it and we haven’t called them on the carpet. We haven’t stood up for ourselves. So when people talk about PR equals spin equals lying, we almost never say: hang on a second; that’s not the profession that we belong to. So from that I think that as a profession, we need to stand up more for who we are and what we do and the value that we bring, and when you think about Arthur Page, he represented those sorts of values. We need to do a better job at that. But then each of us, as individuals, has to be really sure about what do I stand for? What’s my DNA, and do I behave every day, when there’s a grey area, do I make the right decision because it’s the right decision? If more of us were sure about that I think the reputation of the profession that we serve would be much higher than it is today. We have the opportunity to turn it around, but it requires each of us to take the challenge.