The imperial corporation

Delhi Durbar

Dan Lyons has some interesting behind-the-scenes detail on how IBM treats the media:

IBM views media relations as a form of advertising. If they’ve got some breakthrough in the labs, or some new product they’re hoping to hype, they’ll hand-pick a publication or two and tee up a story. They tell you what the story is; they set the agenda; they tell you which people at IBM you’re going to interview, and when; and every IBMer who gets interviewed has been scripted and rehearsed to death before you sit down with them. Nobody strays off message. Every interview is tape-recorded by IBM PR flacks. Those flacks write up a summary of every interview. That info gets used to prepare the subjects for the next interviews. If you’ve ever wondered why almost every story about IBM feels canned and pre-fabricated, that’s because it is.

That might be an extreme, but lots of large corporations act the same way. I first encountered the imperial corporation in, if memory serves, 1987, when then IBM chairman and CEO John Akers did a swing through London. I was editor of Management Today at the time, and although I’d met quite a few of the grandees of British business, the head of IBM was clearly a different thing entirely.

I had to leap through a number of hoops to get on the list to have my precious 20 minutes with Akers. When the time arrived, he had a veritable sea of flunkeys with him and, as I kind of expected, he had nothing interesting to say. What did come across, however, was that the head of IBM was no garden variety CEO. He was more akin to a head of state, and expected to be treated with the ceremony and deference expected by, say, the queen.

I’ve encountered other imperial corporations in the years since, and I think there are few more potent warning signs that something is profoundly wrong with an organization. You can be certain that the imperial trappings the protect leaders from prying journalists also protect them from any challenging outside views or certainly dissension within their own corporation.

In contrast, on the rare occasions when you encounter major corporate heads who answer their own phones (there have been a few) or respond personally to emails, something is right about the culture.

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