Thursday, October 11, 2007

When celebrity mush passes off as business reporting

In the days of my grandfather, if you weren’t in show business or in politics, your reputation (or brand) as a professor, or a doctor or writer was built assiduously and as an accidental by-product of your competence and performance. A teachers’ reputation was spread by word-of-mouth by students, a top thinker collected around him a group of other thinkers who in turn carried the message forward.

Martin Heidegger or Carl Gustav Jung did not have paid publicists. They had devoted followers, and yes a lot of detractors too, which all added up to making them very famous.

The spin-doctors have generally turned this thinking on its head. You first build brand, and then find something intelligent to say and do.

Or so it seems if you look at the way they are trying to convert ordinary corporate executives, presumably just doing their duty, into celebrities. Since many of the men don’t have the biceps or the looks of a Brad Pitt, and the women don’t come any close to the looks and audacity of Paris Hilton, they have invented new buzzword like “thought leader”.

The folks anointed to help them build those larger-than-life brands are, you guessed right, journalists.

So you have unsolicited mails to journalists saying that so and so is an expert on outsourcing, because he runs an outsourcing company, and he would like to comment on anything you plan to write on outsourcing. Or so and so is a legal expert, and available for comment, if you are doing a story on the legal aspects of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition”. And yes, if you are doing a story on “extramarital sex” they have views on that too.

The upshot of this is that flacks fill a journalist’s mail box daily with solicitations about a corporate executive you never knew, and never cared to know. Or you will have an invite to a presser where the flack will tell you “and by the way XYZ is in attendance”, where XYZ is not a stripper or an entertainer or a speaker of depth, but just a boring corporate executive peddling his wares.

These brand exercises by the spin doctors create “little monsters” too. There was one executive who aroused my curiosity because I saw at least ten interviews with him in various publications around the world in the span of seven days. It turned out that the guy wanted a change of job, and his frequent visibility helped him land one.

The flack and the spin doctors are doing their job. The corporate executive is having a joy ride at company expense. But do you know who is left holding the can, doing all the dirty work, just an instrument in the hands of spin doctors and corporate executives. The gullible reporter !

I just think that a company’s key “takeaways”, to use a popular corporate speak, should not be the alleged cerebral glow of its executives but its business strategy, its products, its financials, and everything related to the business.

The corporate executive as celebrity is irrelevant to the business, because what investors, consumers, and employees want to know is not whether the executive had a closed door meeting with the President of the country, but about what the company can deliver to them – the investors, consumers, and employees. I once attended a presentation by a corporate chief to investors, and it was short on business plans, but heavy with snaps of him posing with political dignitaries.

The danger is that if you make the corporate executive a celebrity, he could turn into a “big monster” too, arrogant and unaccountable, with starry-eyed folks unwilling to tell the new-age emperor that he has no clothes.

Have we forgotten what the celebrities at Enron and Tyco, and many other companies did to the people they were supposed to serve ? People then focused on the celebrity, rather than on the deliverables that matter, and lost a lot of money in the bargain.

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