BUSINESS AND THE MEDIA: PRIME TIME AND THE BOTTOM LINE
Fraser Kelly, President, Fraser Kelly CorpWorld Group Inc.
November 26, 1987
Chairman: Ronald Goodall, President
Journalism and journalists have made interesting contributions to Canada. As the country developed, local newspapers were founded. Newspapers were printed in Halifax in 1752, in Quebec in 1764, in New Brunswick in 1785, in Montreal in 1788, and in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1793. In each case, the name of the newspaper was The Gazette and news of local current events and Canadian affairs reached homes across the nation and helped bind the young nation together. In some cases, subscriptions to these newspapers were paid for in wood, one cord of wood for a four-year subscription! The publishers, like the coureurs de bois, had a tough time travelling, sometimes by sleigh, for miles to collect subscriptions and advertising.
George Brown, founder of the Globe, and Thomas D'Arcy McGee were both journalists and Fathers of Confederation. Sir Wilfrid Laurier once launched a newspaper which was short-lived. Henri Bourassa, the Quebec nationalist, founded Le Devoir and was a member of the House of Commons. However, Mr. Kelly, I do not recommend that you follow their example and enter politics. The first two journalists were shot dead; the former by an employee, the latter by a political opponent.
Our speaker was born and raised in Toronto and graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in political science and economics. Fraser Kelly's career has spanned 25 years. His career began at The Toronto Telegram, where Mr. Kelly did just about everything from police reporter to political editor to columnist. When the Telegram folded, he became full-time political editor of CFTO Television and hosted election night and leadership campaign programs and a public affairs program called The Fraser Kelly Report.
In 1981, Mr. Kelly joined CBLT Television Toronto as host interviewer of the nightly 6 o'clock news program Newshour Again he had his own program Fraser Edge. He became well known as a political convention anchorman, a public: affairs host and as a reporter interviewing political leaders and public figures in this country and abroad.
Mr. Kelly has written and,or edited three books on Canadian politics, has contributed to almost every magazine in the country, and found time to function as an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario. He is married and has two children. Mr. Kelly is now making a successful transition from news to business. He is a principal of a Canadian company providing in its portfolio of services two very sophisticated specializations: the training of top-level executives in business and government in the skills of communicating under pressure and, secondly, crisis management.
Crisis management seems to me to be the situation faced when Daniel was thrown into the lions' den, which, of course, reminds me of a limerick about the tiger's den:
There was a young lady of Riga Who smiled as she rode on a tiger; They returned from the ride
With the lady inside
And the smile on the face of the tiger.
Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Fraser Kelly, partner of Fraser Kelly CorpWorld Group Inc., to address us on "Business and the Media: Prime Time and the Bottom Line."
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. The view is different from here. After all these years, listening to and covering Empire Club speeches, I'm now at the podium. As the late John Diefenbaker would have said: "Not since Saul on the road to Damascus has there been such a conversion."
When Bill Wilkerson and I launched CorpWorld 14 months ago, we took our own version of the free traders' "leap of faith:" Although we had been personal friends, and sometimes professional adversaries, for years, we didn't know for sure if we could work together. Or if people would buy what we had to sell. We can. They have. We realized very quickly that nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of poverty. Like all consultants, we were flexible: Someone would phone with a problem and ask "is that what you guys do?" Bill's response was always, "That's exactly what we do"-then I'd offer to paint their house if they needed it.
I stand before you as someone who enjoyed one career in the media, and is now enjoying a second career in business. Today, I'm going to reflect upon those two very different worlds, where they touch and where they part. I'll have a suggestion as to how we might improve the quality of information available to the public through news. And, I'll deal with what I believe is a whole new set of imperatives the communications revolution has forced upon business managers.
Let's begin by recognizing that communications technology has compressed time and space to virtual nothingness. Think of it, no more time or space.
Billions of dollars are shifted around the globe in miniseconds, 24 hours a day. A global marketplace. Satellite product launches are becoming common and reflect the international nature of competition today. Information cascades upon us in bewildering abundance. It's almost as though we are standing at one huge technological street corner: ideas, ideologies, opinion, events converging in one challenging reality.
Choice is free all right in this Canada of ours. And tremendously difficult to make. For the timid or ill-prepared, it's an age of foreboding. For the courageous and well-prepared, it's an age of opportunity. Our world is linked in ways even our parents could never have dreamed about.
The Ayatollah and Iacocca live at 6. Bhopal at bedtime. Mideast madness in the morning. Terrorism, in all its frightening forms, including corporate kidnapping and product tampering, playing to, while being covered by, the seeing eye of television. Stories unfolding and being zipped around the globe like fragments of reality, touching, but not always affecting, our own reality.
This is the shrinking, pulsating world in which business and the media live, or rather co-exist. And I must say that since I have been in business myself for the past 14 months, I have been surprised, even a little dismayed, about how tentative that co-existence really is.
The relationship between business and the media makes Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes seem like Family Ties.
In the past year, CorpWorld has worked intimately and intensely in crisis management and risk communications skills training with a variety of business sectors and professions. Among them: the resource sector, the food industry, drugs, manufacturing, real estate, medicine, the law, entertainment.
In each of these areas, the attitude of executives toward the new pressures driven by the information age have varied. Some have tried to ignore the new challenge, which is about as effective as spitting in the face of a hurricane. Some have tried to react very carefully, strictly on their own terms, while others have worked to develop the new skills needed to confront these changes creatively and productively.
Similarly, their attitudes toward the media, per se, are just as diverse. They run the gamut from fear and distrust to indifference and aggression. The roots of these feelings are cultural-fundamental differences between the mentalities of people in each sector-and historic. That's the way they've been taught to feel.
And, in some cases, this sentiment is rooted in the old axiom held so dear by some business people that business builds and the media tears down.
Whatever the reasons, and there are many of them, the gap between the two realms of media and business is wider than the Grand Canyon. It must be bridged for the sake of those caught in between: the public. I'll have a suggestion for bridging that gap in a moment.
First, I want to make a distinction here. The task of dealing with the larger question of a communications revolution is separate and apart from the specific matter of media relations. Both, however, revolve around another fundamental change which is dramatically altering the ground rules for doing business in today's world.
That is this: the public's right to know has become the public's demand to know. In turn, this means that senior business men and women are being held more accountable for their actions and, as surely as dawn follows dusk, must be more accessible to those communities of interests which seek them out. In short, the world is watching. The world is wondering. The world is sizing up. The world is asking. The task of business is to respond more quickly and more completely than ever before. There's no more hiding in the bunker.
Today, on almost every level, there are more real crises for companies to cope with, or apprehend, than ever before. And because of the impact of instant communications, those crises are potentially more lethal.
Consider this: a company faces a hostile takeover and is struggling to survive. Members of the public watch closely and ask what's that mean to me: my job? my future?
Or, a company uses, produces or transports toxic, dangerous goods. Should it be allowed to continue? Could a child be poisoned playing in the back yard because a cloud crawls across the neighbourhood from a truck that's turned over a block or so away?
A product may be contaminated, deliberately by a terrorist, or disgruntled employee, or by accident. How well do the company's crisis management techniques work and play back to a discerning public?
Companies today may be under deepening scrutiny by regulatory agencies such as the environmental police or the new Pay Equity Commission. These agencies mirror the public's demand that their interests, as interpreted by those in elective office, are not just coddled but truly advanced in the private sector. The same goes for the issues of health and safety in the workplace.
In all of this, a new generation of business skills is emerging as essential to running modern corporations. Bill and I, frankly, have staked our future on that fact and, so far, the gamble is proving us correct.
Sound risk communications skills-the ability to communicate under pressure to and through the news media and to and among groups or individuals in various settings such as the plant gate, in a public meeting, in tough questions and answers, in the presence of activists or politicians-are as much a part of the inventory of know-how for the modern business executive as the ability to read a balance sheet. The capacity to react to any crisis, swiftly and responsibly, from both the company's vantage point and the perspective of public interest-and then to have the wherewithal to communicate clearly, accurately and honestly the steps yet to be taken, what you know and, importantly, what you don't know at the given hour-these are fundamental to sound management in a world of instant communications.
Instant global communications can, and usually do, enlarge the implications of a crisis. The pressure on business is to respond to the substance of the situation and to the urgent, widely dispersed information needs of the public. In this context, the question of making the right choice, the right decision based on assumptions at hand-and remember, information at the critical hour can be scanty-must be resolved with the public "looking in" almost right from the beginning.
The stakes grow larger. The pressure builds. Retaining control, a first principle in crisis management, can be tough when television cameras and radio voices are "probing and seeking" long before the manager feels he or she knows enough to say anything, let alone tell the full story.
Here the pressures of doing business in a volatile and unpredictable world of terrorism and radical change are merged with the pressures of coping with the constant deadlines of electronic journalists who are ready to transmit the story-maven bits and pieces of it-around the world in the blink of an eye.
In this context, consider the influence of television itself as both a journalistic vehicle and cultural medium. It not only influences what we think, but how we think: local and world events are a shared experience. On Black Monday, for example, close to three million Canadians watched the market tumble on CBC's The National-all at the same time.
In the past, knowledge, which is power, was controlled by the information elite. Print was the preserve of the literate, books were bought by those who could afford them. Well, that is no more. Through television, we all get our information at the same time: literate and illiterate, rich and poor, old and young, male and female, farmer and factory worker. This is one factor pounding away at our traditional hierarchies and, I submit, at our traditional Canadian deference to authority. It is reshaping the tempo of our times.
And my former trade, journalism, is beginning to subject the world of business to the same kind of scrutiny we used to reserve for politics and politicians. Business is big news in the popular sense. It is page I as well as the business pages. It is best-seller in book stores. In the television sense, business is prime time, not down time.
This dramatic change in the appeal and pull of business news has occurred in less than a decade. Much less.
And make no mistake. This trend is irreversible. There will be no retreating to the cushy "No comment." Protecting the bottom line today means opening up, not covering up. Readers, listeners, viewers-the consumers of news and information-are thirsting for more insight and substance in the content and personality of business. They want to know about the individuals and the decisions affecting their lives whether it is closing an old plant or opening a new one ... polluting the air or keeping a company town alive with traditional employment in a dirty industry ... whether it is designing a new measles vaccine or turning out defective automobiles.
A whole new generation of women are handling their own financial affairs, raising a family as working, single parents, competing for the tough jobs. They want more information not as an option to traditional pursuits, but as a staple in their quest to know, and to act on that knowledge.
In all of this, business is working hard to meet the needs of the changing populace. Just as the media is working hard to serve what they perceive as the public's demand to know. A clash between business and the media can be expected from time to time. And the presence of an adversarial relationship between the two should neither surprise nor daunt us. It is a natural state. Let's examine it for a moment.
Good journalists in print, radio or television spend most of their working time "being informed." They read all the newspapers and magazines, listen to news, watch news and public affairs programs, study government documents, meet with academics, thought leaders, movers and shakers in all fields.
They know that to inform well, they must be well informed. It's their bread and butter. And this means they tend to work and think horizontally across a whole panorama of issues.
Good business people think across a range of issues as well. But their bread and butter information is contained within the context of their business. So, compared to the journalist, they are working down vertical lines. Their knowledge is stored and retrieved up and down a series of mind shafts.
Business people- and I have found this since I started a business myself-simply don't have the time to be informed in the same "What's happening today" style of the journalist.
It is hard to worry about the ozone layer when your banker is on the phone.
The result is a cultural difference, and also a practical, daytoday difference in working style. This helps to explain, in part, the distance between business and the media. Sure, there are business people who simply would not try to "be informed" on the social issues even if they had the time, just as there are journalists who make a virtue out of ignorance. These two types become each other's stereotypes.
Good journalists pride themselves on being balanced, unbiased, more like umpires than players.
But, that so-called fairness can, and often does, get interpreted by the other side as the media "sitting in judgment," somehow being "holier than thou" That's dangerous for the media which has reason not to be holier than thou.
There are a couple of weaknesses-in logic if not integrity or both-which I believe sap the strength of an honest adversarial relationship and those weaknesses are on the media side. Now that I am "on the other side," so to speak, I have been surprised to find so many of my former colleagues writing speeches, hosting videos, even doing media training-while at the same time holding down jobs as working journalists. Talk about conflict of interest. That is something for the Centre of Investigative Journalism to look at.
Such double standards are fraught with difficulties for the press-particularly if they are displayed with a kind of piety. Perhaps it is just because today's media seem to be allintrusive, but it is hard not to mention the irony of the fact that after decades of trivializing morality, the popular press seems now to be preoccupied with moralizing about trivia.
I do not want this to be interpreted as some sort of all-out attack on my old trade. Far from it. I loved it. Still do. And I believe it is fundamentally important to all of us. I look back, not in anger, but with fondness.
I believe now, as I did then, that it is a good journalist's job to be curious, probing, skeptical (not cynical), sometimes even confrontational. I've said, and I repeat, business should be subjected to more, not less, public scrutiny. And that imperative does mean media people and business people will be adversaries. In a nutshell, journalists may well want more information than business people want to give them.
That adversarial situation, however, need not always take on the overtones of two nations at war, or two neighbours fighting over a barking dog. Tom Wicker of The New York Times has described the press as adversary in the sense that, in a courtroom, a lawyer is the adversary of a witness he is cross-examining: "The lawyer has a duty not simply to listen to what the witness says and elicit responses from him, but somehow to draw from this as near a true story as possible"-4 that's what good journalists do). Wicker goes on to say that when a witness is honest and forthcoming, a lawyer does not need rough tactics. But if the witness is not forthcoming, if he attempts to mislead ... again the parallel is obvious.
But there is another more fundamental problem that drives apart the worlds of business and journalism.
There is a profound sense in the community at large that today's journalist simply does not know or understand enough about business to report on it responsibly. (And I'm not now referring to the specialty business press which has made significant strides in skills upgrading.)
The knowledge gap is especially obvious on the electronic side. The ability of television and radio organizations to gather news from anywhere in the world almost instantly has outstripped their ability to interpret the news, or put it in context. In that sense, their problem is not unlike the moral or ethical problems which new technologies are forcing upon doctors. I don't belittle the problem. For reasons mentioned at the start, our new world is more bewildering than brave.
There's an ecology of issues out there, all interrelated but constantly shifting and changing, all more and more complicated. All requiring better information systems.
It is in the interest of both worlds, business and journalism, to confront this head on, and try and do something about it. I would like, therefore, to offer a suggestion which might be a step in that direction.
In the United States, there is an organization known as FACS-the Foundation for American Communications. It is a national, nonprofit, educational institute dedicated to improving the quality of information reaching the American people through news.
It was established II years ago and it has become the neutral turf for news organizations, business, government, academic representatives to work together on common problems. Its fundamental mission is education, for journalists, for business people, for community leaders. But especially for journalists. It has the support of many of the most prestigious news organizations, corporations and academic institutions. The initial funding came from foundations, the news media, business and individuals.
It now involves the very best in American journalism, government and business. This year, first-rate educational conferences were held on subjects like international competition, economic redevelopment, law, ethics. That is a good idea. We all gain if the quality of information upon which we make our personal judgments is the best it can be.
Perhaps we should build on the American experience, as we have done in so many other fields, and expand FACS into Canada. Or, we can build a Canadian version of FACS involving our own media, our own business and journalism schools, our own academics and our own business community.
It is a cliche to say we live in the information age. Let's accept, for a moment, that the cliche is true. Surely then the challenge of producing better information, regardless of the natural benefits of an adversarial relationship between the media and business, is an idea worth pursuing.
Having said that, I recall the words of T.S. Eliot who wrote, "Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow." I think we all share an obligation to step out of this shadow as quickly as we can.
The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Marcia McClung, a Director of The Club.