Why CEOs Need To Speak Out Now - The Role Of Corporate Counsel

Monday, December 1, 2008 - 00:00

Editor: Why is it important for CEOs to speak out publicly about their companies' contributions to the economy and to society? Why should this be done now?

Deyo: I can't recall a period quite like this in my lifetime. We are in a deep economic crisis and business is going to have to play a central role in any recovery plan. And yet, recent surveys show that public cynicism about business is at an all time high. With a new administration about to take office and beginning to formulate its agenda, it is vital for CEOs to speak out about the contributions that their companies make to the economy and to society. Only by understanding the extent of those contributions can there be an appreciation by the public and the new administration of the important role that corporations can and will play in the recovery. As the new administration formulates its economic policies, doing so against a backdrop of public distrust of business would discourage government from realizing the vital contributions that corporations can make and may, in fact, encourage governmental actions that could hamper that assistance.

Editor: Why should the CEO speak out?

Deyo: The CEO commands the attention and respect of everyone associated with the company. When he or she speaks out, it underscores for employees and stakeholders the maximum importance of an issue. So I think it's very important, especially now, for CEOs to make their voices heard as Bill Weldon does on the front cover of this issue.

Editor: Why should the general counsel advise the CEO to speak out on this issue?

Deyo: We have an ethical and legal duty to the corporation to alert the CEO and, if need be, the Board when we see the need for action. And here we are at a time when it is so important for the government to view corporations as keystones supporting reform - and fully use their potential. We should continuously be scanning the horizon so that we can provide early warning of an important need or challenge and encourage the company to formulate strategies to address it. As in this case, where the success of the effort depends on getting many CEOs to speak out, we need to formulate a strategy to do that as well.

Editor: In his interview, Bill emphasizes J&J's participation in programs that provide free or discounted pharmaceuticals to those in need. He also points out that it has used its expertise in health care to reduce its health care costs by emphasizing healthful employee lifestyles and has launched an effort to extend a similar program to the general public. Do you feel that companies in other businesses should publicize ways that their businesses can ameliorate the effects of the economic downturn and can offer help to the government in shaping policy in areas where they have special expertise?

Deyo: Definitely. Our nation is facing a crisis of historic proportions. I believe it is vital for companies in all facets of business to talk about and offer their special expertise - to speak to what they know - as the new administration formulates and implements its recovery programs.

Editor: This newspaper can help corporate counsel understand why they should urge CEOs to speak out. However, the messages CEOs convey need to reach a broader audience. How can messages like Bill's best be communicated to the general public in a way that will reduce the current cynicism about corporations?

Deyo: I would agree that once a company through its CEO decides to present its individual message about how it contributes to the economy and society, it should do so in a way that reaches the maximum public audience. There are always opportunities to work these important messages into our discussions with the mainstream news media that follow our companies on a daily basis. And today, there are also vast opportunities to communicate in the online world. There is no shortage of vehicles for conveying information. But first and foremost must be the decision to be more active and more visible because our times most certainly call for it.