Oral Histories

Ron Rhody

Interview Segments on Topic: Counselor/Counseling Advisor

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.


Interviewer:  So when your corporation or organization is faced with a false claim or an accusation isn’t accurate, what can that PR person, spokesperson, whatever they may be called, do to be sure that they speak up to the media. How do you do that?

Rhody: Well all that depends on how that particular public relations person is seen by the management with whom he's working whether or not he seems strong or weak whether or not he seems like someone who has good judgment or doesn’t. Whether or not he is somebody that gets done what he says he will get done, or can’t, and a lot of that, most of that is a result of the connect between the chief communications officer, the chief public relations officer and the CEO. Which is one of the reasons I feel not all of my people feel that way. I know not all my peers feel that way. One of the reasons that I feel it is so very important that the chief communications officer report to the CEO direct line in but the my feeling is that you never let an incorrect record stand. Then if you’ve been wronged, you take it on. I sort of like quoted Justice Holmes first defense of an innocent man unjustly accused is righteous in indignation. I think if you’ve been unjustly accused you ought to be righteous indignant and take it on. That’s not a view that is universally held and for a good reason. You run a great deal of risk when you take these sorts of things on and you have to be willing to go all the way to the mat on them. And many companies just don’t’ want the hassle for that. The reason I think it’s important. Well there are a couple of reasons I think it’s probably important to go that route. One is that in my opinion the most important asset a corporation has is its reputation. And a corporation needs to do everything it possibly can to protect its reputation. And if you allow your reputation to be sullied knowingly allow that to happen back off that. I think that we can as the corporation considerably with all of your constituents but most importantly with your employees. I haven’t also been one of those people who feel next to a corporation’s reputation that is the next important asset and its most important audience is its employees. Not the shareholders, not its customers but its employees. Because if its employees don’t’ make it happen and make it happen well nothing else happens. So for those reasons I think you stand up and you defend yourself.

Interviewer: You mentioned something that has come up in several interviews that I’ve done and it is that the reference that corporate communications officer or the public relations officer and I am finding that some people are quite opinionated about those two titles. Some feel that communications that is what the individual is called. Others feel that it must be PR that communications the PR planning has to happen before the communications begin. What is your thought on all of this?

Rhody: I think it is fascinating that after all these years and after all of us who have done it none of us are going to agree on what you call it. Now that says something and I’m not quite sure what it says but that says that says something. And I don’t really care what you call it. It seems to me that the objective of this function is to get people to do something not something later. To motivate to affect behavior. Some people work for you by your stock your products not walk around picketing you let me have that [inaudible] get people to do something. Or let locate that plant there, I don’t know what you call that. And as I say I don’t really care. Communications designation to me I think has the possibility of being misinterpreted or misunderstood to the extent that it can it can be confused with the [inaudible] function with data that the transmission data that sort of thing. Although the most difficult thing we try to do is try to communicate and we don’t do it awfully well under these circumstances. My position is, I don’t care.

Interviewer: So have some of these PR managers failed in their relationships between the CEO or is it still the general arrogance of the CEO who's maybe really not listening?

Rhody: Well a couple of things have happened. I think that the and again many of my peers will disagree with this but I think the importance of the function has eroded during that period in which there was the assumption and continues to be the assumption. Public relations is a marketing function. It’s a CEO function. Public relations the chief public relations officer needs to be concerned about and thinking about the same sorts of things that the CEO is thinking about. One of those things is marketing and one of the things public relations can do very very well better than advertising in some circumstances is support the marketing effort. It’s not marketing function that’s only one portion of it. But there was that period that and I think it still exists to some extent, I suppose, there was that period in which this was felt this was a marketing function. Let’s say we have our chief public relations officer report to the chief marking officer or to an executive vice president somewhere that’s doing something else. This is just another one of those special functions. But not that special that causes the function to erode which then in my opinion took away a lot of the influences. took away a lot of the influence that the CPR ought to have with the CEO because he wasn’t doing things that were all that important in so far as the CEO is concerned. And he didn’t have the CEO’s ear and he wasn’t thinking about the same things. And the CEO I’d like the CEO I think that I’ work for to think that I worry about the same things he worries about. That I am paying a lot of attention to using my skills to get where he wants to go. So I agree where he wants to go. If I don’t then I have to get out.

Interviewer: Okay so lets’ talk about, continue the discussion about [inaudible]. As the [inaudible] corporate or chief public relations officer or as a private consultant. And you use all these experiences to write your book. The CEOs Play Book from the perspective of the counselor giving advice to CEOs. So talk a little bit about this book. Why you wrote it. How it’s been used. And just well you really talked about the duties of [inaudible] and you talked about relationships. What has come about because of this play book?

Ron: Well, I doubt any of it. Maybe something I can’t imagine that anything of real consequence has come about as a result of that. I got a lot of things off my chest in it. It pretty well summarizes what I think game is. I use game imagery in a positive way. Not that’s it’s been substantial. But it’s very very important. This game of winners and losers. But it’s used in college classes. Some CEOs have used it one or two told me they thought it gave them good ideas. But I think that’s probably about the extent of the books. Although as I say it gave me the opportunity. You may notice if you read it and perhaps you haven’t. I wouldn’t be surprised. There is a chapter in here that is intended to educate the CEO. To explain to him that public relations isn’t marketing function. That is is a CEO function. These are the things that ought to be part of that function and it all ought to report to you because the things that it gets done are so important to you that you can’t afford to have amateurs do them. So that chapter I hoped may have helped a little. There are other things in there that are useful. One of the things I hoped to do. This started as a series of memos to young executive with whom I was working at the time who was in line to be CEO. He was going to be the CEO and started as a series of memos to him. Explaining to him things I thought he ought to know as he got ready to do his job. One of which is that if you concentrate just on managing the company you’re going to lose a large part of your function is to mange all these outside forces that affect your ability to make a profit. Which sort of speaks as well to the Page Principles. The book makes specific reference to them I think Page was dead right [inaudible] in that all our companies operate at the pleasure of the publics they serve. And we had better serve them well. Better look out for their interests. We’d better be responsive to them WE need to operate in such a way that they will give us permission [inaudible] profits. That could mean a couple of things. But a lot of simple [inaudible] things like try to do the right thing. Tell the truth.

Interviewer: Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about, thinking of our audiences being their next generation that they are in college or graduate programs who are looking to break into the field eventually? Anything else you’d like to tell them?

Rhody: Yeah a couple of things. One it’s the best game in town without in my opinion. It’s exciting. It’s rewarding for people who bore easily like I do. There’s always something that you need to get to you need to deal with literally everything in the media sense everything from film to the blogs. You get to deal with all the issues that are important so I think it’s the best game in town and I think the money is beginning to get to the point what makes it part of the best game in town as well. There’s that the other thing I would say that not to people who practice but maybe some is that we have a tendency or sometimes you have a tendency to be very defensive about this activity profession, craft, trade. And that’s dead wrong because what we do is very, very important and it’s important because what we do is make a difference in what people know. What they think. Consequently how they act. So it is a tremendously important function not to be denigrated, and not to be used loosely. We need to practice our craft with people that we believe in and whose ethics we support and not do so for others. So there are there are those things. Very important. I think as long as I am rambling there have been a couple of things that have disturbed me about. I think our people by in large have not been nearly assertive enough. In senior circles when you are sitting there with the chief counsel and the chief labor relations guy and the CEO and people are making public relation judgments in this environment. I think other people don’t often enough say I am the expert. I will I will make those decisions. But very good friend chief counsel. Bob Turner. I had this deal with Bob. You get to make all the public relations decisions and I’m going to make all the legal decisions. And it worked. That worked pretty well. But I think we have to professionally assert ourselves. The other thing I think that disturbs me about the programs that I see. And one of the reasons that I think that we might not always get the respect and support that we should get is that all too frequently our people are not knowing what they want to achieve. I guess it’s not necessary to be known and loved by all but I think we feel that if we run opinion tests that say oh the people have a favorable impression of us, we’ve done our job That’s not the job. The job is to help the organization reach its goals and we need to be very clear about what it is we’re doing in each program in order to make sure those goals are reached. So we have to find objectives all to often and I think those clearly defined objectives are understood by the senior line management when achieved add real stature to the organization.

Interviewer: Well I want to thank you for taking the subway all the way here and spending some time. I appreciate it very much and I think your comments will be very valuable when we add them to our collection. Thank you.

Rhody: Thank you.