Oral Histories

Ron Rhody

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

Ron Rhody Biography

Ron Rhody's long career in public relations includes serving as executive vice president and director-corporate communications and external affairs at BankAmerica and corporate vice president and director of public relations and advertising for Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp. 

He became CEO of his own Consultancy and is the author of “The CEO’s Playbook” and “Wordsmithing: The Art and Craft of Writing for Public Relations.”  He has worked with and advised CEOs and senior executives in the business, academic and not-for-profit sectors on a variety of communication and public relations issues.  He has received numerous awards and honors from professional groups and organizations.

Transcript

Interviewer: So in 19 well I am not exactly sure, when did you go to Kaiser.

Rhody: No, no we went to Kaiser in 55 or 56. Quite early.

Interviewer: Okay so you were the vice president of public relations and advertising. In 1981 there was a crisis resulting from the ABC magazine show 20/20 claiming that a corporation, Kaiser Corporation, potentially sold some unsafe house wiring so this would put you in crisis mode. How did you handle that? Did the CEO seek you out to ask your counsel? And how did you respond to this trail by television.

Rhody: Well that’s ultimately what the exercise became known as trial by television and I am happy to say that we gave it that name because that was the issue that we wanted to get exposed as we went through this entire exercise and that was the issue of fairness. That is the ability that television puts you on trial and tired you with the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the judge and the jury without giving you the chance to say anything except what they choose for you to say. So it was a tremendous amount of fun as we went through and seemed to last a long time. What was the CEO’s role? The show played on a Tuesday or Thursday night about 10 o’clock. The CEO I was working for, one of the world’s greatest CEOs, Cornell Meyer. Had a habit of coming in. Cornell got to work about 5:30, which meant that all the people who reported to him got to work about that time. So I was in my office early that next morning, still dark offices on a beautiful building overlooking Lake Merritt in Oakland on one side, and the San Francisco Bay on the other. Sun was just coming up. It was a beautiful morning developing and Cornell walks into my office and says did you see that show last night? And I said I sure did and he said we’re not going to stand for that. What are you going to do about it? So from there we stepped back and developed a pretty aggressive program, which upset most of the people in our industry at the time. The theory at that point was that you don’t pick fights with people who buy their ink by the barrel. We didn’t care about that. Cornell’s concern basically was how our own people would react to these charges that we were doing this heinous sort of thing putting a product on the market and from which they died. And his essential concern was the concerns about all the people. He everybody else in the industry made that product. This is Keyser Aluminum Alcoa the biggest in the industry made it. Reynolds all the other big players made it. Nobody wanted any attention drawn to the adequacy of this particular product. And all of the industry advised as Cornell quite oddly to let it alone. Don’t do anything about it. And Cornell’s reaction was no. We’re not going to so we too it on and we took it on about as aggressively as you can do. We brought a suit against ABC to the fairness doctrine .We Cornell and I the two of us undertook a speaking program across the country going practically any venue that would that would entertain us and that ranged from the economic club of Chicago to the Kiwanis Club in [inaudible], Virginia. But we must have gone over the course of that year we must have done 125 speeches taking the message out. Worked very aggressively with our members in the House and the Senate again on this issue of fairness. Insisting that our insistence was that ABC give us unedited response time in Prime Time. And the same time span in the same time period in which they had made these accusations. That had never happened before. Of course no network was going to relinquish unedited response time. We made enough noise and I guess did our job effectively enough that ultimately ABC did give us unedited response time in prime time TV, and Ted Koppel, they created a special show for it. Ted Koppel handled the show. We put up one of our guys. We put up one of our guys. We put up as a matter of fact we put the manager of that division up to deliver our response unedited on prime time TV.ABC insisted though that Geraldo Rivera was the reporter on that piece. They insisted that Geraldo be able to come on and challenge our person. The fellow’s name was Steve[inaudible] on the show and we so we prepared Steve. Spend a lot of time as people do walking through Q & A and role-playing as he got ready for that confrontation with Geraldo. But Koppel handled it just beautifully. And the result was that after the show played we did some we did some polling and well, the polling of course you would expect but people do polling in certain ways but in any event the reaction seemed to be that we prevailed. And we won in that argument. So we got the unedited response time on prime time TV and I am happy to say that ABC continued that show for at least a year. We were off it of course. But we were offering the opportunity to others who felt they had been unfairly tried on television to come on and give their point of view. As I say we found out something very interested. We made several issues. I started to say spin. But you don’t want to say that. We based this issue on the issue of fairness that it just wasn’t fair that an organization the power that television has can come in and accuse you of something and you not have the chance to present your own defense other than through them just wasn’t fair at all. So it was the issue of fairness. And it turns out that the issue of fairness is basically is a pretty popular idea with the American public. And ABC saw that because they were getting a lot of calls and letters and pressure generally about this whole issue of trial by television. So ultimately we got we the time and we had a lot of fun doing it and it turned out to be a case study at the time.

Interviewer: So looking back over your professional life, any accomplishments that you are particularly proud of that you might want to talk about for a minute?

Rhody: Well the trial by television was a very was very important. There have been others. You probably don’t know about San Francisco Academy but San Francisco Academy is a it is no longer in operation but it ran for ten years or so was a initially put together by a part of a group senior people in San Francisco; Bob Horn of HG & E, Bob Flynn of Bechtol and others who put together. We were sitting around one day wondering how do we go about really developing our number twos, the guys who we want to come into our job. So we looked all around the country at the academic programs and none of them were doing anything. So we decided what we need to do is create our own. So we did create our own and it was called San Francisco Academy and two people were nominated by their companies to come for almost a year-long program. It’s not inexpensive. We only took about 18 people a year I guess. But with a curriculum put together by a world class professional Frank Kalupa at the University of Alabama at the time and Bill Sheppard who had run the program at Alcoa, world class professional, world class academic put together this program for us to which our people went. It was very effective. We thought it worked very well. We liked it an awful lot. Some of the alumni Russ Yarrow who is a very senior position at Chevron. Bob Wynne in Oracle and a batch of others. I am proud of that. I think we did a really good job of putting that together. I suppose there are other things but those two things. I really liked trial by television. It was a lot of fun. And I think we established an important principle. That is you doesn’t have to take you can get your point taken.