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‘Respond to any attack on your company, no matter how crazy it sounds,’ former White House counselor Dan Bartlett told Kellogg Executive MBA students May 1. ‘Perceptions can be reality in minutes or hours in a news cycle.’

Dan Bartlett

Gaining public trust

Former White House adviser Dan Bartlett talks to Executive MBA students about maintaining corporate reputations and sending strong messages

By Amy Trang

5/6/2009 - Former White House counselor Dan Bartlett was faced with a public relations problem while serving under President George W. Bush. The White House was planning to announce a surge in Iraq, but the president’s approval ratings had plummeted, leaving the country’s CEO on unsure footing with the public.

Bartlett, who also served as White House communications director, said the situation is similar to that faced by many firms in today’s economy: layoffs and bankruptcies are announced daily, and many corporate leaders lack the public’s trust.

“If you put CEOs out there, they must have some credibility,” Bartlett said. “So how do you sell a message with a flawed messenger?”

The solution to Bartlett’s dilemma: Bush would explain the surge and the reasons behind it, but let U.S. Gen. David Petraeus answer the questions.

“When picking the right messenger to articulate a company position, there has to be credibility there,” Bartlett said, adding that Petraeus had the public’s trust. “Building up credibility and political capital is more important than ever.”

The latest speaker in the Kellogg EMBA Luncheon Speaker Series, Bartlett spoke before Kellogg Executive MBA students May 1 about managing corporate reputations to maximize public trust.

Bartlett is now president and CEO of Public Strategies Inc., a public relations and public affairs firm, and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Texas. He told the Kellogg students that corporations can no longer build “silos” within their companies or among their constituencies. Firms need to align their public communications, because “you can’t say one thing to your investors while also saying something different to your consumers,” he said.

“The public is looking for authentic conversations with corporate America,” he said. “They can see through the false stuff. With blogs and social networking, everyone can know everything.”

Bartlett encouraged firms to assemble a central database of all news and messages regarding the company. He added that companies should be cautious about every false message.

“Respond to any attack on your company, no matter how crazy it sounds,” Bartlett said. “Perceptions can be reality in minutes or hours in a news cycle.”