Over the past year or so, there’s been no shortage of examples of companies (and their leaders) showing an incredible propensity to stumble into media scandals or PR fiascoes. Let’s start with the Big 3 U.S. automakers going to Washington to beg for money in private jets and with their nascent rescue plans written on the back of a napkin. Or AIG stubbornly going ahead with lavish training or recognition trips as if they were flying high and the economy was humming. Or leaders of humbled (if not bankrupt) investment banks arguing for their typical million-dollar bonuses.

How could this happen, one might ask. These executives are presumably very smart people. These companies likely have large PR staffs that monitor the media and political winds. How could they not have anticipated and prepared for these events when it was so obvious to most observers their actions were ill-advised and smacked of delusion and hubris? I chalk it down to three critical flaws – call it my “axis of PR evil”.

  • Insularity – Though it seems unbelievable that a company (or culture) can become detached in this 24-hour, multi-media, mobile Web environment, it would appear some of these protagonists either ignore, dismiss or don’t comprehend what is happening outside their doors. That is more likely in a cultural environment that beats the drum loudly and limits candid dialogue and external input. In other words, they drink a lot of cool-aid and listen to themselves rather than outsiders.
  • Arrogance – A good way to get into trouble is to start believing you’re smarter than everybody else. Or don’t have to follow the same rules. Or deserve a better fate (and paycheck) than mere mortals. I don’t personally know any of the executives embroiled in the scandals I’ve listed above, but they all appear to have very healthy egos – even as their companies crumble around them and they go hat in hand to Washington. That may be good for their self-esteem, but good leaders need the humility and self-awareness to recognize mistakes and accept good advice. With these folks as leaders, arrogance can easily become a cultural virus spreading across an organization. It all adds up to a toxic mix.
  • Greed – It’s clear that a common thread in many of the recent  PR scandals is the most basic of human flaws – some people like to make as much money as they can…sometimes much more than they deserve or is legal. Nothing new here, perhaps, except for the brazen, delusional extent of the greed as the economy crumbled around them.

What’s the lesson for PR professionals? Be the voice of reason in spite of intense pressure to conform or be silent. Help to break through the insularity and arrogance. Bring the outside in. And never drink the cool-aid…or at least, too much cool-aid. If all of these efforts fail on a consistent basis, it may be time to reevaluate whether you should stay in your job.