Oral Histories

Ron Rhody

Interview Segments on Topic: Crisis Management

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: This is absolutely related to what we just talked about that maybe I just want to see that you have to say about it. 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.