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What CEOs need to learn from Michael Cohen and AT&T

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One of my all-time favorite political campaign books is The Selling of the President.

Written by Joe McGinnis, the book covers the story of how Richard Nixon was repackaged and reshaped for the American public as a candidate for president in 1968. Eight years after Nixon’s losing presidential campaign and his lackluster television performance at the Nixon-Kennedy debate, he faced all the old image problems.

Nixon hired then 28-year old Roger Ailes to remake his image. An image that would win at the ballot box, and more importantly, on television. Ailes created television moments that made Nixon, not smart, not knowledgeable, but well-liked. Ailes created television moments that engaged numerous constituents on their terms.

1968 was no time for policy, it was a time for charismatic personality and shared values.

McGinnis’ book makes clear, presidential candidates can be rebranded and remarketed. Television does not expose and demystify the powerful. Instead, it makes personality stronger. Television ensures style is substance.

David Miller, of the legendary political consultancy Sawyer Miller, saw how television and mass communications would change not only candidates but commerce. He wrote in an article for the Yale School of Organization and Management that just like candidates, if done correctly, corporations could use the tools of television and campaign management to ensure market size and good paying consumers.

Miller wrote: “Corporations must recognize that it is now in their long-term self-interest to develop much more democratic relationships with all of their shareholders, community members, and the public at large.”

Miller foresaw how the corporate world was quickly resembling a politician’s world and how a politician relates to constituents. 

As information channels increase, multiply, focus on niches and distinct tastes and thoughts, corporations need to forge an emotional bond with their various constituents - just like a politician.

The only sensible and meaningful way to do is - establish a relationship and commercial transaction based on shared values.

Today’s masters of the universe CEO is poor decision away from disrupting a relationship based on shared values. Corporations can no longer control the flow of information and can lose control of the narrative within hours.

Corporations are under assault from government regulators, reporters, shareholders, and employees all demanding style that supersedes substance. 

CEOs today need to woo their customers, engage regulators, listen to shareholders, reinforce employees, and make their case daily. CEOs need to communicate more often, on more platforms, and more broadly. Sawyer believed CEOs needed to define themselves before someone else set them - just like a candidate who works like they are up for reelection daily.

As all significant institutions continue to lose sway and influence, the pressure on corporations and CEOs to fill this void increases daily.

For AT&T it wasn’t the paying for access, advice, and public affairs expertise which was a bad idea, it was that they paid an individual (Michael Cohen) who was out of step and not in line with the shared values of AT&T’s numerous constituents.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said as much in a memo distributed to employees last week.

“Our reputation has been damaged,” Stephenson wrote. “There is no other way to say it—AT&T hiring Michael Cohen as a political consultant was a big mistake.”

Companies need to sell worthwhile goods and services - this for sure will continue to matter. But the transaction now has an emotional connection as well.

As pointed out in Edelman's 2018 Trust Barometer: "A good reputation may get me to try a product—but unless I come to trust the company behind the product, I will soon stop buying it, regardless of its reputation.

63% of those surveyed agreed with this statement.

The Edelman Trust Barometer provided a clear directive for today’s CEOs - building trust is job one.

Winning commerce of the future will happen when a company is trusted, provides high-quality services and products, and where business decisions reflect shared values.

AT&T hiring Michael Cohen is losing commerce.

It is not essential to much to be smart and knowledgeable, but it is necessary to be well-liked.

-Marc A. Ross

Marc A. Ross is the founder of Brigadoon and specializes in developing winning communications, content, connections, and commerce for entrepreneurs and thought leaders.