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Conference Seeks to Ease the Tension Between Media and Business Leaders

November 15, 1998|MARTHA GROVES

Start with the assumption that neither side much trusts the other and you have a good appreciation for why the relationship between the business media and corporate America is frayed. Call it: CEOs are from Mars, and reporters are from Transylvania.

But the connection is so central to the functioning of society that it is worth exploring the factors that influence and constrain it.

That was the notion of two Southern California management professors who recently assembled a notable group of media representatives, academicians and corporate leaders from as far away as Hong Kong to air grievances, share observations and consider how dealings could be tweaked for the benefit of all.

"Our ideas about leaders, their actions, values and goals are molded by powerful intermediaries, the various forms of media," said Jean Lipman-Blumen, a professor of organizational behavior at Claremont Graduate University. "It is not a relationship from which either can or would necessarily wish to seek a divorce. Yet this relationship is often fraught with tensions and characterized by imbalances."

The late-October conference, called "Media and Corporate Leadership: The Challenge and Courage to Lead," was co-sponsored by Claremont's Institute for Advanced Studies in Leadership and USC's Leadership Institute and Annenberg School for Communication. Lipman-Blumen coordinated the gathering along with Warren Bennis, an expert on leadership at USC's Marshall School of Business.

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It was clear from the polite but sometimes heated discussion in a meeting room at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills that many corporate leaders have contempt for today's style of business journalism. Many decried the "People-fication" of corporate news that has turned the personal lives of decidedly non-glamorous CEOs into grist for water cooler gossip.

"Everybody feels they're getting a bad deal from the media," one member of academe said. "The business of media is to please advertisers and build circulation," added another. "There is blatant unfairness." "The media rely too much on rumor."

For their part, business journalists noted that executives often are inaccessible or attempt to manipulate the press.

One entertainment executive chimed in that "too many CEOs, mindful of the need for quarterly results, park their values with their cars when they enter the workplace." Also: "The media play a very vital role in promoting a free society." And: "CEOs and journalists both feel a higher purpose, but the intersecting [of] missions often results in a clash."

Among the corporate participants were Roger C. Beach, chief executive of Unocal; Frank J. Biondi Jr., CEO of Universal Studios; Marcy Carsey, co-owner of Carsey-Werner, an independent production company; Peggy Cherng, vice chairman and president of Panda Management, which runs Panda restaurants; Chung Po-yang, founder and chairman of DHL International in Hong Kong; Robert C. Fisher, managing director of Schroder & Co., an investment firm; Henry Y. Hwang, founder of Far East National Bank; Norman Lear, chairman of Act III Communications; Lee Masters, CEO of E! Entertainment Television; Ronald L. Olson, a prominent attorney with Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles; and Leonard D. Schaeffer, CEO of WellPoint Health Networks.

Representing the press were Joann Lublin of the Wall Street Journal; Patricia Sellers of Fortune; David Ignatius of the Washington Post; Jose I. Lozano, publisher of La Opinion; James Michaels of Forbes; James B. Russell, co-creator of the daily business radio program "Marketplace"; and this reporter.

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Not surprisingly, the disparate group reached no conclusions, although a set of policy recommendations is expected to emerge by early next year. They will be compiled by Jack Miles, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and former book editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Reporters and editors urged executives to seek corrections when called for. They were disturbed by the plaint of several CEOs who said their public relations people advise against pointing out errors for fear of having the story turn into an even bigger deal.

"Some people have an expectation that all the press is going to be good," Masters said. "I don't think that's possible. But if you're open and straight up, you tend to be treated fairly."

There was little doubt that business journalism has gained hugely in importance.

"The world is fighting on an economic battlefield," Fisher said. "The press has the responsibility of reporting the war accurately, and the armies (businesses) have a responsibility to report how they're doing."

Business, he added, must give an honest picture of what's going on, and the media must be candid in reporting a facsimile of that information. Executives should understand that the media will come with preconceived notions, but the media have to appreciate that in such a litigious society, there is only so much that management can legally share.

Does your company have an innovative way of communicating news--good or bad--to employees? Tell us about it. Write to Martha Groves, Corporate Currents, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Or e-mail martha.groves@latimes.com.

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