As Seen in PRSA

by Michelle Marasch Ouellette

The tone-deaf elite. We can cite example after example, some extreme. Take former BP CEO Tony Hayward. In 2010, after 11 died in the offshore-rig explosion that started a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he told reporters, “I’d like my life back.”

In 2015 there was Martin Shkreli, founder and, at that time, CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. After his company raised the price of a life-saving drug from $13.50 to $750 and he sent emails celebrating the profit margin, Shkreli called the move altruistic, saying “my whole life has been one theme, of self-sacrifice for my investors.” He later laughed his way through congressional testimony.

This past April, there was United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz. After a passenger was bloodied while being dragged off an overbooked flight to make room for an employee, Munoz apologized for having to “re-accommodate these customers,” saying that the incident was “upsetting” to everyone at the company. He, of course, did not mention the feelings of the man who was dragged, the other passengers or the horrified public who viewed cellphone footage of the “re-accommodations” online.

The public recoiled from the BP spill’s devastating effects on lives, livelihoods and the environment. It grew outraged on behalf of the HIV and cancer patients who depended on Turing medications that many could no longer afford. And it had visceral reactions to hearing the screams of the doctor pulled from United’s plane. Yet the CEOs seemed blind to the suffering.

Shkreli’s lawyer blamed the CEO’s poor congressional performance on “nervous energy.” At CNN, correspondent Stephanie Chen wrote that Hayward failed to “recognize a fundamental rule of crisis management” — the need to “think with a little less head and a little more heart.” Forbes writer Adam Hartung suggested that Munoz was “locked into viewing his company operationally.” Executives would do well to follow the advice of Chen and Hartung. During crises, when people are hurt, CEOs must respond as humans first.

The empathy required may be hard for the leaders to muster; however, if an article by Jerry Useem in The Atlantic is correct. In it, Useem shares research that likens the effects of power to brain damage.

The Power Paradox

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, found that test subjects who felt powerful “acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury — becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view,” Useem writes.

The very traits that help people come into power — empathy, sharing, fairness — often fade as those same people begin to feel power or privilege. In his October 2016 article for Harvard Business Review, Keltner calls this change the “power paradox” and cites its harmful effects, including decreased productivity among offended employees. Useem also points to research by neuroscientists at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, which backs up these findings.

When most of us watch an individual in action, it fires our neural circuits as if we, too, were performing that action. The phenomenon is called “motor resonance.” In tests, the researchers found that subjects who had been primed to feel powerful had lower levels of this resonance than those who were made to feel they had little power or those in the control group. Simply put, the powerful people had less empathy. In subsequent research, subjects informed of this deficit could not increase their motor resonance by willing it to happen. These findings should give leaders pause, and they provide evidence of the importance of public relations.

The Importance of “Toe Weights”

Useem also mentions Louis Howe. Howe, a respected adviser to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was always willing to talk truth to the president, according to Jean Edward Smith’s 2007 book “FDR.” Few people could have talked to FDR the way Howe was heard to on the telephone: “You damned fool! You can’t do that!’” Smith writes. Howe considered it his duty to serve as “toe weights to keep Franklin’s feet on the ground.” In doing so, he taught Roosevelt the importance of “small favors and public gestures” and helped the president navigate union issues, insisting that FDR personally meet with leaders. Howe’s work has been considered a key to FDR’s success.

If power does, indeed, change brains and cause leaders to lose empathy, then “toe weighting” by PR professionals should play an even larger role in executive suites. But there is implicit danger in this work, even for communicators. Sitting at the management table, sampling success, gaining pride, growing in power, we too can fall into the power-paradox trap.

To prevent the power paradox, Keltner suggests we develop three essential practices — empathy, gratitude and generosity. These traits “have been shown to sustain benevolent leadership, even in cutthroat environments,” he says. He tells us to practice empathy by taking time to think about others before meeting with them, asking questions and listening “with gusto.” For gratitude, he suggests we write notes of appreciation and publicly acknowledge the contributions of others. Finally, he says we should be generous with praise and one-on-one time and even in the delegation of high-profile responsibilities.

The Power of Page’s Principles

Compiled by the Arthur W. Page Society, the “Page Principles” can also help protect organizations from empathy-challenged leadership:

  1. The first principle is to tell the truth. As communicators, we must “provide an ethically accurate picture of the enterprise’s character, values, ideals and actions.” If United Airlines had followed this practice, it wouldn’t have used a euphemism like “re-accommodate” to describe a passenger being dragged off an airplane by police for refusing to give up his paid seat.
  2. The second Page principle is to prove values through action. Words are important, but actions speak louder. According to the Page Society, “public perception of an enterprise is determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says.” Shkreli’s smirks amid tough questions, his emails celebrating profit margins and the 4,000 percent price increase for a life-saving medicine all speak to the public far more convincingly than him calling his actions “altruistic.”
  3. The third principle is to listen to stakeholders. We have to understand what publics want and need by engaging in “inclusive dialogue.” Then we must make sure our leaders receive the feedback. In the case of BP, Hayward’s tone-deaf response suggested an absence of listening. As the spill threatened the livelihoods of thousands of people, instead of addressing their needs, he worried about his own.
  4. The fourth Page principle is to manage for tomorrow. After we listen, we need to “anticipate public reaction and eliminate practices that create difficulties.” If BP had listened to concerns about safety and addressed them, the explosion and resulting spill might never have occurred.
  5. The fifth Page principle is to conduct public relations as if the entire enterprise depends on it. Where smaller companies might have perished, BP, Turing and United still live, but each suffered a great deal of damage, damage that can make the companies less resilient in future crises.
  6. Principle six reminds us that an enterprise’s true character is expressed by its people. “The strongest opinions — good or bad — about an enterprise are shaped by the words and deeds of an increasingly diverse workforce,” the Page Society says. As contributor Cheryl Connor wrote in a post called “The Power of the Disgruntled Employee” in July 2012, unhappy workers might alienate clients, leak sensitive information, bad-mouth the company online and permanently damage a brand. But employees who are satisfied, empowered and feel they have a voice can be your organization’s best advocates.
  7. Principle seven is to remain calm, patient and good-humored. Lay the groundwork for PR success with “consistent and reasoned attention to information and stakeholders. When a crisis arises, remember, cool heads communicate best.” Had these CEOs led with consistent, reasoned attention to stakeholders, outcomes would have been much different.

Power and privilege may change people for the worse, but there is much that we as communicators can and should do to protect our organizations, stakeholders and leaders from the damage that often results. Let’s vow to use the principles and be the empathetic, grateful, generous toe-holders that our organizations and leaders need.

Michelle Marasch Ouellette’s research focuses on crises. The assistant professor of PR at SUNY Plattsburgh is founder of the North Country Virtual Operations Support Team and has nonprofit and college PR experience. Among her recent articles is “Prison Break: The Truth About Crisis Communications in a Social World.”

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