Politicians are so fearful of corporations that they no longer need to worry about pleasing the populous as much as they need satisfy the wants and desires of “too big to fail” companies. And the ability of corporate PR departments to cover the greed and corrupt cronyism that mark the relationship between big business and big politicians provides cover as well to the greedy legislators.
Whenever I hear the kindly music associated with a commercial touting the corporate citizenship of big energy, big banking or the like, my skeptic-antenna is raised and I ask myself, “What are they trying to hide?”
Back in the days when I worked in public relations and corporate marketing, the term “reputation management” had just come into vogue. Today, under whatever rubric that’s used to describe the manipulative arts, reputation management is the daily dish of many corporate campaigns.
The shame of it is, how easily we Americans are fooled into believing that beautiful images and lovely music represent the true essence of a business. We need to remember that there is a hard-nosed goal behind all corporate marketing: to increase shareholder value. Put in simpler terms, shareholder value is a code phrase for higher profits that can then be translated into higher stock prices and (in some rare cases) increased stock dividends for investors.
The great American system of capitalism has thus been corrupted by placing shareholder value ahead of product quality (or even product necessity). I learned as a young worker that my job was to produce the best possible product, which would earn us a reasonable return on investment from people buying that product. But toward the end of my 30-year career, success was all about share price, and, as time went on, the connective tissue between share price and product value eroded to the point that it barely existed.
By bringing employees into stock ownership and constantly reminding them of the daily ups and downs of a company’s share price, corporations took the staff’s eye off the product quality ball and put it directly on the stock market.
Threatst to the growth of share price can be dealt with through “reputation management” in lieu of an effort toward improving product quality or making changes in the company’s operating philosophy. So an oil spill in the Gulf Coast is met with a barrage of commercials demonstrating how wonderful the company is, and focusing on the small number of actual examples of doing the right thing through environmental work and assistance to affected individuals. By doing the minimum while targeting advertising and PR on those few examples, corporations make it appear that they are taking care of all the problems they have caused.
Politicians are eager to have us fall for this ruse by their corporate cronies. They know the public is poorly trained in the art and technique of corporate marketing and thus will have a hard time separating manipulation from reality. Interestingly enough, the electorate has a much easier time identifying and rejecting manipulation by the news media because there is an entire industry (talk radio) continually complaining about and revealing that manipulation.
Corporations have immense resources to throw at these problems so their execution is often superb and the repetition of their message is constant. In my judgment, the citizenry of our nation is so under the sway of corporate messaging that we have a tendency to trust corporations more than we trust the very people we elect to represent us.
We need to learn more about “reputation management” and focus our skepticism on the companies who practice this black art. Meanwhile, the politicians who are bought and sold by these corporations deserve an equal, if not greater, level of public scrutiny.