Say "Yes We Can" To Change: Companies, CEOs And GCs Should Speak Out

Sunday, February 1, 2009 - 01:00
GE

The Editor interviews Brackett B. Denniston, III, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, GE.

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?

Denniston: Doing it now is critical. Trust in business globally has declined significantly in this financial crisis, but, at the same time, the need for encouraging innovation, for creating fulfilling jobs and for building strong and sustaining societies has never been greater. Companies that perform economically and ethically are vital to that effort. Therefore, CEOs, especially in this kind of environment, need to speak out about the social value of their companies and the contributions they make, of their role in communities and of the need for companies to lead in promoting high performance in a culture of high integrity.

Editor: What aspects of the general counsel's role make it particularly appropriate for general counsel to urge their CEO to speak out now?

Denniston: CEOs have the responsibility and duty to speak out on their own, and GE's CEO has been doing that in many forums. I believe that most CEOs will carry out that responsibility without prompting, although they can certainly benefit from encouragement from their general counsel. General counsel can provide encouragement and speak out on their own including on the importance of the rule of law. Lawyers for corporations have a special responsibility to encourage behavior that supports the rule of law, which includes ethical performance and support for the other values with which it is associated. As President Obama said in his Inaugural Address the ideals of the rule of law "still light the world" - ideals which I believe are vital to sustained economic development and a free society.

Editor: In his interview, Jeff Immelt emphasizes GE's participation in programs that will advance important national goals, including in energy and healthcare. Do you feel that the CEOs of other companies should publicize ways that their businesses can ameliorate the effects of the economic downturn and demonstrate how their expertise can be of help to the government in shaping policy?

Denniston: I feel very strongly that companies should speak out and play a role in solving the great problems of society. Two of the great challenges that we confront in the United States and globally are to develop sources of the energy we need while minimizing effects on the climate as well as to provide for the efficient and effective delivery of healthcare for everyone.

Government has a big role to play in meeting these challenges, but strong and effective companies must also be involved because technology is at the heart of solving those great problems. Although there are other elements to both these complex issues, at the end of the day technology will play a huge role in addressing both issues.

In the case of global warming and scarcity of resources, technology is essential to effectively harnessing solar, wind, nuclear and biomass and other sources of power and storing and transmitting that power - developing better batteries, for example, is essential.

Healthcare IT, which President Obama has championed, is at the heart of reducing medical errors and delivering more efficient healthcare. There are a variety of other technologies that we and others can bring to healthcare, like ultrasound. Technology can also contribute to bringing better healthcare to all people. We have championed less expensive, more efficient healthcare equipment which can be used anyplace, whether it's rural Africa or a small city in China.

In finding solutions to our energy and healthcare challenges, the private sector should be consulted because companies have already been developing the technology to apply in implementing solutions and have given consideration to how best to deploy that technology and to policies that would facilitate its use.

Editor: How can messages like Jeff's best be communicated to the general public in a way that will reduce the current cynicism about corporations?

Denniston: There is a growing skepticism about government, about companies, about many things - which always happens in an economic downturn. Governmental policies and litigation outcomes will be shaped in this atmosphere and it is important to make every effort to improve it. Therefore, CEOs and general counsel should speak out about the good their companies do, how they approach their jobs, the jobs they provide, the culture that they provide, the leadership that they afford, the citizenship that they bring to their communities, and the benefits that derive from strong companies and great jobs.

Companies and their CEOs and general counsel should be aggressive in telling this story, which must be well articulated using the best forms of advocacy, constructively and vocally, in every form of media, including newspapers like this one.