Public Relations Tactics

To Tell the Truth: Ray Jones on Corporate Leadership and Internal Communications

By John Elsasser

December 1, 2017

Ray Jones began his career as a general assignment reporter at age 23, and by age 31, he had risen to become executive director of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association, supervising member services for 300 newspapers in the state.

He served as chief communications officer at Monmouth University, Winthrop University and William Jewell College, and then ran a small PR agency in Kansas City, Mo. In 2004, he returned east to join Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N.C., a $9 billion organization with 65,000 employees. As chief speechwriter, he helped position the CEO and other senior leaders as national thought leaders on major health care issues.

Having retired in July, Jones offers these thoughts on the future of “traditional” news media, along with perspectives on why so many corporate leaders lose their way — and often their jobs — due to communication failures.

You majored in history at Dickinson College. Did you have any idea then what you wanted to do for a living?

Actually, I knew at a much earlier age that I wanted to be a writer. When I was in fourth grade, I used to help my mother [a high school English teacher] grade essays at home. Apparently, that knack for writing and editing was genetic.

You started your career as a print journalist, and later served 12 years as executive director of a press association. What are your thoughts on the future of print?

When the recession hit in 2008, all newspapers accelerated their cutbacks in editorial staffing. Many big-city papers couldn’t sustain seven-day-a-week publishing. As an industry loyalist and diehard reader, I was convinced that newspapers would stage a comeback.

I was wrong, however, because of another sweeping trend: a historic shift in the way people consume information. The number of communication channels increased dramatically, and younger people grew more focused on narrow topics of special interest, rather than broad topics of general interest.

The result was disintegration of the old business model that made quality journalism possible. To generate high-quality content, you need a critical mass of enterprising reporters who will ask tough questions of people in power. A democracy cannot sustain itself when you lose the checks and balances that healthy news organizations provide.

What is the main communication issue that prevents top leaders from being effective?

One big Achilles’ heel among corporate CEOs today is a conviction that the laws of public relations apply to everyone but them.

Why do so many organizations seem to suffer from leadership dysfunction?

Our system for holding top leaders accountable has gone off the rails. Too many leaders — in both business and nonprofit settings — effectively hand-pick the board members whose job it is to hold them accountable. Leadership boards are thus stacked with people who can be counted on never to ask a tough question. You can’t be that manipulative and expect happy outcomes.

How have you seen this lack of accountability impact corporate culture?

Despite what many CEOs would have you believe, corruption percolates down from above. It does not rise up from below. Take Wells Fargo as a case in point. Thousands of low-level bank employees didn’t spontaneously decide to set up millions of phony bank accounts. They did it as a rational response to pressures from above.

Wells Fargo’s reward-and-punishment system was put in place by high-level managers whose motivation was greed, not customer service. And it perpetuated itself because people at even higher levels, including at the board level, were asleep at the switch.

Delivering bad news to employees can generate high anxiety for management as well as workers. What tips do you have for ensuring effective internal communications?

Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and do it right away. I’ve never met an employee who couldn’t deal with bad news, as long as they felt they were being leveled with. Likewise, I’ve never met an employee who didn’t see through any attempt to manipulate the truth.

What is the best piece of leadership advice you have ever received?

I once complained to my assistant that too many of my employees were showing up late for work. Fortunately, she had the chutzpah to point out that I myself was consistently guilty of the same thing. Until then I had rationalized my own behavior based on the fact that I often stayed late and worked weekends. She confronted me with the ugly truth that if I arrived by 9 a.m., so would everyone else. She was, needless to say, correct.

Based on your experience working with the C-suite, what counsel do you have for new managers?

One of the big reasons C-suite executives fail is that, when something bad happens, they don’t call in experts to provide objective advice. They call in experts only so they can [tell] them what to do. I call this the “George Armstrong Custer approach to problem-solving.” Custer once famously said, “There are not enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry.” We all know where he ended up, along with 220 very unfortunate subordinates. Narcissism will kill you every time.

What trend is having the biggest impact on communication professionals today?

It’s the sea change in reading, viewing and listening habits that I mentioned. In the old days, if you scored a good placement in The New York Times, you could go home feeling like you’d done your job.

To reach a critical mass of people in today’s environment, a well-placed news story is often just the starting point. You must also rely on a broad and ever-changing array of social media [to spread that message] — while keeping in mind that the reason why many people utilize social media in the first place is to avoid exposing themselves to your organization’s “propaganda.”

To adapt, you not only need more people; you need more people with specialized expertise. So it’s harder and more expensive to build a good staff, and harder to measure and interpret results.

What do you consider your greatest achievement as a corporate communicator?

I’ve always enjoyed mentoring new professionals. The environmental changes I’ve outlined have not eliminated the need for many old-school disciplines that do not receive sufficient emphasis in today’s pre-professional programs. I have always tried, as politely as possible, to instill in others the lessons I learned as a small-town reporter some 40 years ago:

  • Remember that people won’t talk to you if they don’t trust you.
  • Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.
  • Return all phone calls.
  • Never throw away a business card.
  • If someone speaks to you off the record, then honor the agreement.
  • Don’t misspell the police chief’s name.
  • Don’t print a news release that’s been embargoed, particularly if it recounts the details of a wedding that hasn’t yet taken place. 

Getting to Know… Ray Jones

Any three dinner guests — past or present?

Mark Twain, Johnny Carson, Mel Brooks

Favorite movie?

“Blazing Saddles”

Favorite book?

“All the President’s Men”


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