Uh Oh: The Feckless Defense of Fabulists

June 27, 2001

By Jon Entine

It was a trifecta for the Liar’s Club, but an even more astonishing moment for those who are supposedly guardians of trust, the leaders of distinguished institutions. Customers buy what they believe in, connecting to a set of values that they perceive an organization and its products embody. In that sense, a publishing house, a magazine, or a university is no less a "brand" than Firestone or Ford.

What happens when these sentinels–executives whose responsibility is to protect, nurture, and grow brand reputations–fail to meet the challenge of an ethical crisis?

The past week offers some sobering lessons. First came the unwinding of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph J. Ellis. According to the Boston Globe, the Holyoke professor invented a heroic past that included a tour of duty in Vietnam and roles in the civil rights and antiwar movements. Oh yes: he also scored a mythical winning touchdown for his high school football team.

Last Friday, The Wall Street Journal turned heads when it reported that one of the best-selling business books in history, "The One-Minute Manager", was cribbed from a colleague of Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, the authors who now run multi-million dollar consulting firms and lecture at $50,000 a pop. The two lifted almost half of the book, virtually verbatim, from a journal article by University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor Arthur Elliott Carlisle leaving out only one section: the part that stresses that managers should give credit to those who give you ideas.

On Monday, The New York Times reported that Slate.com columnist Jay Forman fabricated an article in a series on, of all things, human vice. "The Shame of Fishing for Monkeys" falsely claimed that evil fisherman in the Florida Keys were baiting their hooks with apples to capture rhesus monkeys that had been bred for medical research.

The common thread in all this is not the expected forms of denial by the culprits, all of whom have been caught more or less red handed. (For the record, Forman went underground; Ellis pleaded a form of temporary insanity; and Johnson and Blanchard, a religious man who calls himself Chief Spiritual Officer of his fabulously wealthy company, offered a serial defense: At first, Blanchard was patronizing–he sent a letter to the author of the seminal article with a quote from the Rev. Robert Schuller that begins: "A Winner respects those who are superior to him"; he moved on to fabulism–a now abandoned claim that he helped write the original article; and now Johnson engages in angry self-pity–"We should celebrate other people’s prosperity", which has distinctly eluded the actual author).

The common theme is the feckless display by those so-called leaders who, in trying to buy time or deflect responsibility entirely, demonstrate fundamental failures in judgment and perhaps in character. By so doing, they seriously damage the brands that customers and other stakeholders entrust to them.

Spokespeople at William Morrow, who have a sizable fortune riding on the pair, were tight-lipped, perhaps afraid someone would move their cheese. Blanchard and Johnson’s editor, Lawrence Hughes, now at HarperCollins, said he supports the authors’s claim (which one?).

Holyoke colleague Peter Viereck proclaimed Ellis, whose calling card after all is interpretative history, one of "American’s greatest historians" because of an unfailing commitment to accuracy and reliability. Sprinkling more fairy dust, college president Joanne V. Creighton praised him for his integrity and responded with an attack: "We at the college do not know what public interest The Globe is trying to serve through a story of this nature."

Michael Kinsley, Forman’s publisher, first wrote a tortured defense of the monkey business, concluding that Slate "stands by our writer and his stories." Monday at 5 AM, Kinsley apparently saw the light, for he posted a "We apologize" mea culpa–only hours after the fiasco hit the front page of the Times’s Monday business page, posted online Sunday evening.

"These are typical if disheartening responses from a certain style of leader," says Ellen Turner, a business consultant experienced in brand building, which is really what these incidents are about. "They have ‘skin in the game’ and a lot to lose if the messy facts become widely publicized. In effect, they are businesses under assault, and not everyone reacts with character when crises hit."

Perhaps after the Clinton years, we should be used to such public dissimulations, but it never ceases to shock. Turner, who formerly served as Chief Marketing Officer at Nike and Kinko’s, believes that there is a wider lesson here for leaders of all kinds, be they in academia, media, or business.

"Organizations that are tone deaf to stakeholders, whether customers or in this case, readers and students, retreat to the bunkers. I call it ‘data denial'. Myopic leaders are prone to rejecting the facts when the data do not provide the rationale for doing what they want or have already decided to do. Leaders with character have the intellectual honesty and instincts to reach beyond their own self interest. If they don’t, the brand takes a hit."

Dishonesty and its cousin, defending the indefensible, have their own anti-gravity, drawing into their vortex those who do not stand for principle. The lesson, of course, is that if leaders do not listen to what their customers demand, or react only at the eleventh hour when the heat becomes unbearable, the brand erodes, sometimes irreparably. In these incidents, that may translate into fewer loyal readers, and students (and their parents, many of whom are potential donors) who find another college, thank you.

Does Kinsley’s fox hole conversion, Creighton’s reactive decision to ax Ellis’s Vietnam course at Holyoke for this fall, and William Morrow’s apparent indifference to Johnson and Blanchard’s fabrication go far enough to assuage their stakeholders? As Ford and Firestone are learning, reputation and once-burned customers are not always so easy to earn back.

Jon Entine [http://www.jonentine.com], who writes frequently on business ethics and brand marketing, is contributing author of Case Histories in Business Ethics [Routledge, UK), to be published this fall.