February 1, 2009
Yours and ours
By Bill Kraus
This is addressed to the incoming class of executives of quasi-public companies: banks, insurance companies, investment banks, automobile manufacturers, and whoever else has a brand new, large stockholder who is located in Washington, D.C. Welcome to the fishbowl.
Up to now your acquaintance with the press, unless you have had the misfortune of being caught with your corporate pants down, has consisted of issuing press releases and saying “no comment” in those rare instances when someone asked a nosy, penetrating question.
You are now a beat.
The good news is that the press, which now feels it has a right to know everything about what you do and how you do whatever it is you do, is woefully understaffed.
The bad news is that reporters' instincts for the capillary is still alive and well. And now they feel they should have complete access to behavioral conduct as well as fiscal results.
Up to now you have been very forthcoming about your results. Actually, corporations’ reports are a lot more complete and confessional than those of public institutions. Quarterly and annual reports (called 10Qs and 10Ks) go to great lengths to tell their readers what has gone and could go wrong, and about all the risks that your enterprise faces. Government reports (called State of the State and State of the Nation addresses) are less about how bad things are going than how well they will go in the future.
The potentially embarrassing stuff was pretty much out of view.
Reporters are no longer confined to reading and reporting on the results. They really think they should be invited to your board meetings, like they are in the public sector. It hasn’t come to that. Yet.
In the meantime they are reporting and commenting on things that were pretty much out of bounds before, like politicians sex lives used to be. All this changed when you took OUR money.
How the heads of the auto companies got to Washington was their business. No longer. Now everyone knows they came on their corporate jets, and that they shouldn’t have.
Citicorp has cancelled an order for a new jet and is being asked whether putting its name on the New York Mets' new stadium is an appropriate use of OUR money.
And it doesn’t stop with the few remaining straight reporters. It has spread to the comic sector. Jay Leno said the other night that the Obama inauguration was the most expensive celebration since the last corporate retreat the executives of the AIG company attended on OUR money.
And it isn’t going to let up.
Those of us who have spent time in both sectors have long known that the big difference between the private and public sectors is that the public sector is public in every sense of the word, and that that fact influences behavior.
Welcome to the fishbowl boys and girls.
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