Wake up corporate America! Free enterprise is under siege and you need a new playbook. Remember Dale Carnegie? It's time to start winning friends and influencing people. Today.
Americans are angry - not just at Wall Street, but at businesses across the land. Increasingly, people believe that U.S. corporations are willfully and indifferently exporting jobs. While over the past two decades the outsourcing of work was masked by prosperity elsewhere, the downturn has spotlighted the shift to lower value-added jobs. Workers whose families for generations have assembled auto parts or who have provided services now handled in Bangalore have seen their factories and offices shuttered. They are furious. Who can blame them? Their security is gone and their future is uncertain in the extreme.
President Obama has fueled this sentiment; on more than one occasion he has excoriated "the corporation you work for (that) will ship (jobs) overseas for nothing more than a profit."
The "profit motive" has become synonymous with greed. Americans have forgotten that profits provide funds for investment, for research and for expansion.
I hear anger in responses to pieces I write about the economy. In a typical post, one woman recently commented "the U.S. has abandoned manufacturing and R&D as a sacrifice to Wall Street's profit Gods." This is not campaign rhetoric - this is one American's actual interpretation of how the world works. This "us versus them" view means that the president's popularity can be stoked by attacks on business; it is therefore a certainty that the bludgeoning of corporate America will increase. As we see nearly every day, the administration has a large arsenal of assault weapons at hand - tax increases, anti-trust forays, buckets of new regulations and strangling oversight.
Corporations across America are unprepared for an assault of this magnitude. Admittedly, most CEOs are scrambling to fend off the recession. Now they must find that inventiveness that built this nation, and aggressively mobilize.
It can be done. A few years ago Wal-Mart found itself the object of a smear campaign engineered by self-interested labor leaders, only a year after being voted the most admired company in the U.S. Management was completely nonplussed. Gordon Gekko had never stalked the corporate suite in Bentonville; I'm not sure there is a corporate suite in Wal-Mart's home town. The company could not imagine that decades of bringing low-priced goods to U.S. consumers and employing over one million Americans could produce such vilification.
After a couple of false starts, Wal-Mart skillfully counter-attacked. CEO Lee Scott became greener than grass and appeared on Charlie Rose's show promoting Wal-Mart's ramped-up commitment to the environment. Among many other initiatives, the company spun out millions of energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs, converted used cooking oil to fleet fuel, and reduced packaging to save waste. All of these measures received beneficial publicity, and most turned out to boost the bottom line. Wal-Mart addressed another concern of Americans by lowering prescription prices and opening neighborhood clinics. It's hard to hate the company where you shop every day. Gradually the negative aura disappeared.
This should be a model for U.S. business leaders. They have to counter the Obama assaults, and they have to show Americans that they can help solve the country's problems. How to do this? First, as improbable as it sounds, corporations need to enlist the media. Not through press releases - but through personal appearances. Consider that not all tycoons are treated poorly. Warren Buffet, for instance, gets great press - partly because he's an Obama buddy, but also because he has crafted a folksy, approachable image that removes the sting from his outsized bank account.
CEOs need to shuck their suits and become real people. Americans are suspicious of formality and the trappings of success- just ask Mitt Romney. (Well, the whole underwear thing was an issue, too.) They need to know that corporate moguls are folks just like them, with mortgages and children with braces. I remember once calling the wife of a Wall Street CEO, terrified at undertaking this breach of protocol. It turned out I interrupted her in the midst of cleaning her basement. I was flabbergasted that this exalted personage would stoop to such mucky work; she became a real person.
First, CEOs should can their PR firms. Hire a new, web-savvy outfit that can take the message to the people. Get management on talk shows - not just for 30-second soundbites but for roundtable discussions and interviews that get beyond cliches. Heaven knows we see enough of talking heads interviewing talking heads. Better yet, corporate moguls should go prime time; if Obama can play Saturday Night Live, how about GE's Jeff Immelt? Surely there are CEOs with a sense of humor. Or, maybe launch The Real CEOs of Manhattan.
Businesses should also enlist the support of their employees. The oil industry recently joined forces with a coalition of fifteen unions to promote investment in that sector. This was possibly the smartest public relations move the oil companies have ever made. (Admittedly, the bar is low.) Americans need reminding that even the hated energy industry employs workers - in fact 1.8 million workers. The same is true of the telecom industry (almost one million), now facing a seemingly gratuitous antitrust investigation, pharmaceuticals, coal mining and many other industries that have been targeted by this administration. Beating up on corporate America hurts workers - that's the message people need to hear.
Corporations must also pitch in with gusto to help solve America's big problems. Companies need to take a more aggressive role in helping laid off employees find work in other fields, providing job training and relocation. Businesses should be pooling resources, setting up reemployment web sites - becoming visible on the Internet. At the same time, corporations should start providing answers to our country's healthcare crisis. Companies like Caterpillar and Deere are part of an initiative called Partnership for Prevention, which works to promote employee wellness. These efforts are smart, produce excellent public relations, strong employee ties and simultaneously support the bottom line.
Corporate America needs to get with it. CEOs need to rustle up a little love, through intelligent 21st century outreach, and by pushing popular and effective policies. Politicians in the last election cycle made the jump to the Internet; now businesses must do the same. They need to be seen as a force for good, by becoming a force for good and promoting the daylights out of their efforts. They are in the fight of their lives, and the future of the country is quite literally at stake.