Words Matter: Business school lessons

By MERRIE SPAETH, UPI Columnist  |  Feb. 24, 2005 at 11:44 AM
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DALLAS, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Are the nation's graduate business schools shortchanging students by not teaching students about the critical role of strategic communications in managing corporate image? According to The Wall Street Journal editor and columnist, Ronald Alsop, the answer is "yes." I agree.

Business schools not only teach marketing, but allow a student to major in it. However, "communication" is perceived to be something that can't really be measured, so it isn't a business skill. All these perceptions are out-of-date.

The first myth to shatter is that marketing, advertising and even merger and acquisition activity can be measured. My own alma mater, Columbia Business School, did a good job teaching me two things: first, that what you decide to measure and how you value it determines what the outcome is. In other words, "how tall is that tree?" The answer will depend on whether you measure from the ground up, or whether you start at the tip of the root system.

Second, many traditionally accepted methods -- including measurement and valuation -- are just that, traditions. They don't withstand scrutiny. Did that ad campaign really cause sales to rise by five percent? Or were other factors causal? The well-known but omerta of the Neilson ratings is that everyone accepts them, but everyone knows they are fiction. There's just no other fiction to replace them.

Alsop's criticism should go further than the link between communication and corporate image. Well-run companies have a market strategy. An example is GE's well publicized strategy to be number one or two in all their markets. They have a business strategy, for example, build up the business and sell it. They have a strategy for a rate of return: every investment must meet a hurdle rate of X percent. None of them have a communication philosophy or strategy.

Most use what I call the Victor Gompers approach. The famous labor leader was in prison in the 1920s, and a reporter pointed out that the labor movement had achieved its goals: an eight-hour workday, job protection, etc, and asked "What do you want?" The answer was, "More." More communication is not strategic communication.

If companies start with a model and a philosophy of communication, they would be able to show that communication is an integral part of every other discipline. For years, I've preached a model based on communication as "influence." The goal is to understand how to use a predictable set of techniques to understand and identify the target audiences and to influence what they hear, what they believe and what they remember. Then, recognizing that communication is not a static snapshot but an ongoing process, the goal is to understand that people are going to remember some things and pass them on to others, and to anticipate, harness and align this process with the business strategies.

The governing philosophy of communication should abandon the traditional mindset, "What do we want to say?" or "What do we think this audience needs to remember?" asking instead, "What do we want them to remember?" In other words, it's not enough to teach "communication" without a definition and approach a company can explain.

One of the most important reasons to tackle this is because today's business school students will have to use and manage communication as executives. "Managing your experts" is a key component to strategic communication. It's amazing how much companies pay for bad advice. Bad advice from lawyers: like Martha Stewart's lawyer who let her come to court with a $6,000 handbag, and let Barbara Walters ask her, "How much did you save by selling your ImClone stock?"

Steward replied condescendingly, "$40,000. About .0006 percent of my net worth."

"So not very much," said Walters. "No," Stewart sighed.

Since she was in the middle of trial, her priority audience was the jury. Normal people sit on the jury. $40,000 is a lot of money. Stewart was trying to explain what the number meant to her, but what mattered was what it meant to the jury.

Or the PR company whose talking points for Arthur Andersen began, "Only a truly forensic audit can find fraud." What's "forensic?" So "fraud" was there, and Arthur Andersen turned a blind eye?

Or the advertising and PR folks who convinced former Ford CEO Jacques Nasser to do ads during the Firestone-Bridgestone tire crisis. Nasser was so bad that Stuart Elliott, the advertising columnist for The New York Times, described him as "an unfortunate combination of Al Gore and Crocodile Dundee."

Communication is inseparable from corporate culture. Top executives routinely ask the old Ed Koch line, "How did I do?" without recognizing that the "great, JP, just great," response is job protection for the speaker, not real critique.

Here's hoping that Mr. Alsop's column, with the weight of The Wall Street Journal behind it, finds its way to the deans of the major business schools. They're way behind.


Merrie Spaeth is the president of a Dallas-based consulting firm and is a regular commentator and writer on communication issues. She was the Director of Media Relations and Special Assistant to President Reagan

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