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Words Matter: Cover-up or tin ear?

By MERRIE SPAETH

DALLAS, April 26 (UPI) -- Just at the close of contentious negotiations over huge concessions by its unions to avoid bankruptcy, AMR, the parent corporation of American Airlines, revealed that it had created a "trust fund" to fund pension plans and special bonuses for top executives. Predictably, the three unions went ballistic.

Was this a classic cover-up or does former American Chief Executive Officer Don Carty win the "tin ear" award?

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At first, it seems like a cover-up. Last October, AMR created a fund -- a supplemental executive retirement plan or SERP -- apparently in anticipation of bankruptcy, after the company realized that its employees' pensions would be protected but not the executives' pensions. The plan came to light in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which had been delayed until after the unions voted on concessions.

The cover-up theory even comes with a BIMBO comment from Carty to his employees: "It was not my intent to mislead anyone."

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Remember, a BIMBO comment is where the speaker repeats and denies a negative, causing the listener to believe the opposite of what the speaker is trying to say.

The classic denial and back-to-back damage control letters to employees make me believe this public relations disaster may be the result of a terminal case of tin ear. Tin ear is the condition where executives say or do what is important to them without thinking of how various audiences or listeners process information and without thinking of how information flows.

Unfortunately, American linked its protection of the executive pensions with bonuses for executives who stayed for two years. These "retention bonuses" are common and are defended by management and their lawyers as a way of keeping valuable executive talent at a company. However, while the pensions are defensible, the bonuses are highly questionable.

True, the employees have pensions, but thousands of employees have lost their jobs. And by lumping and funding the executive pensions and bonuses together, they are linked forever in the minds of employees.

The uproar was so great that the executives decided to forgo the bonuses. However, instead of saying that the bonuses were a terrible idea, Carty wrote: "The goal was to give senior officers incentive to stay with the company when many were offered more generous packages to go elsewhere."

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First, this tells employees that all executives care about is money at a time when American desperately needs to build team spirit. Worse, I don't think it's true. In this economy? What company or industry is wooing these executives and offering to double their salaries?

Executives should build communication based on understanding what makes their key audiences hear, believe and remember key messages. This is a radical shift from the attitude of most companies, whose mindset is "What do we want to say?" or "What do we think the listener needs to know?"

The middle word, believe, is jeopardized by American's choice of words. One of the commandments of good communication is never to say -- or write -- things you don't believe. Your audience will quickly figure out that you don't believe what you're saying.

In the same letter to employees, Carty wrote: "Throughout this restructuring process, our chief priority has been to communicate effectively with you, our employees, and it is clear we have not done so." As my teenager would say, "Duh."

Now, the business or management issue here is "Why?" Who is advising the management team on communication? Were the advisers also unaware of the SERP and bonuses?

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Three more questions come to mind.

One, if the advisers didn't know about the SERP and bonuses, that's a serious commentary on how AMR values and understands how to use wise communication counsel.

Two, on the other hand, if the advisers knew but didn't explain that these were major landmines, they fall into the category of high-priced but incompetent consultants.

And third, if the consultants knew and made their case but were ignored by AMR's management and lawyers, it doesn't speak well for the company's willingness or ability to listen or its judgment.

Again, the problems here involve the linkage of the executives' pensions with the bonuses and the decision not to clearly explain that to employees. It was certain to leak out -- as it did.

William Webster, former director of the FBI, used to say that he hired people if he thought they had good judgment. When I asked him how one developed good judgment, he grinned and said: "From all the times you used bad judgment."

Looking at the big picture of the airline industry and AMR, Carty certainly tried to create a viable, profitable, stable airline. Unlike some of the mega-egos that have swooped into the other airlines and pillaged them, he seems to have genuinely cared about the employees and the future of the company.

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Let's hope this was one of those opportunities to develop better judgment in the future.

-- Merrie Spaeth, director of media relations for former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, is president of a Dallas-based consulting firm and a regular commentator on public radio and television.

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