Sparing the spin spiel

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 August, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 August, 2002, 12:00am

IF YOU WERE to call what he does spin-doctoring, Weber Shandwick Worldwide chairman Jack Leslie would have to be one of the world's most enthusiastic practitioners.

But mention of this phrase to the head of the world's biggest public relations firm boss of 3,000 in 60 offices around the world makes him wince and grit his (pearly white) teeth.

'I can't stand this notion of a spin doctor, and thank God one of the benefits of what's happening right now (post-Enron-Worldcom accounting scandals) is there's a very low tolerance in the United States for spin doctors, and I think it's a great thing,'' he said on a recent visit to Hong Kong.

'People and issues are just too sophisticated ... we really need to understand the substance of the issue, understand the objectives and strategy.''

He fears the very concept of 'spin'' will be linked with a lack of corporate transparency, with the perception that corporate communications was 'part of the problem''.

The 48-year-old with the imposing, must-have-played-football frame says his profession should play an important role in pushing for corporate transparency and in helping rebuild shattered public trust in corporate America.

Wait a minute, does this sound like any public relations person you have ever met?

This attitude is almost impossible to fathom in the opaque world of corporate Hong Kong, where media gate-keepers vet questions in advance, hacks hold executives' hands during interviews and would be about as likely to loosen their grip on a Gucci accessory as explain a related transaction to a minority shareholder.

Mr Leslie, more formally known as John W. Leslie Jr, repeats a 15-year old mantra: 'What can be known, will be known.''

From a man described in his biography as a 'former political operative'', this sounds less like 'fess up now before you get caught'' and more like a pragmatic plea for a pre-emptive honesty strike, a kind of 'make it look like you're coming clean only when you can't avoid being caught''.

A good many years of his apparently pre-corporate life were spent in promoting truth, justice and the democratic way. He fought for the political underdog, helping opposition forces get their public policy messages out to topple dictators.

He worked for the famous 'No' campaign in 1988 which roused Chile's democratic forces to end the 15-year reign of dictator Augusto Pinochet. He helped people-power president Corazon Aquino oust Philippines despot Ferdinand Marcos. He 'worked with'' former South African president Nelson Mandela, as well as the pro-democracy forces in Costa Rica, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina.

But back to the far more lucrative world of corporate crisis management. When a PR disaster of Enron-esque proportions strikes, his job is to make corporations reject their normal behaviour 'to duck and wait for the whole thing to blow over'' and instead to 'step up to the plate and engage'', usually after ignoring the advice of lawyers to admit nothing.

One example was that of client Merck, the world's No 2 pharmaceutical maker, whose share price tumbled and rocked both the US dollar and already scandal-traumatised world markets after it admitted it recorded more than US$14 billion in revenues from a subsidiary which it never actually collected. Mr Leslie said the salvation came from quick action by Merck's chief executive, who went on a number of news programmes immediately to address the issue of accounting standards.

'The story went away ... because there wasn't a lot of substance to the story, but in this environment today, any story becomes a serious problem,'' he said.

However, the South China Morning Post's files show Merck made no public comment when litigation was first launched against the company in June when it was alleged billions of dollars were involved and that the company revealed the scandal involved only US$14 billion or 10 per cent of its revenue, when it made a company filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission last month.

This recent explosion in demand for 'crisis management'' and 'corporate reputation'' cannot hurt Weber Shandwick's bottom line.

Last year the company reported fee income of about US$425 million which, according to Mr Leslie, is streaks ahead of second-placed Fleishman Hillard, which had fees in the 'low 300s''.

Another of the firm's crisis-stricken clients was and is American Airlines. The first hijacked aircraft on September 11 flew over Mr Leslie's car in Central Park moments before it smashed into the first tower of the World Trade Centre.

All of the airline's in-house public relations people were at head office in Dallas for a meeting, leaving crucial gaps in the airline's information-gathering capacity.

Weber Shandwick's senior public relations people were immediately dispatched to key airports. 'We got them all on a conference call coming in on my desk, and no one hung up that telephone for three days. It became the central point of intelligence for what was going on. There was no black book on this particular crisis,'' he recalled.

After September 11, he represented the marketing and public relations industry before the House Committee on International Relations as Americans tried to fathom how and why extremists hated them so much. He told them to launch a centralised, communications war focusing attention on winning the hearts of the Muslim moderates, including recruiting credible messengers on the ground such as clerics and sports teachers.

The member of the Council on Foreign Relations was also co-author of a yet-to-be released report he calls a 'very tough assessment of our failures'' in communicating US policy values to the world.

The former legislative assistant in public health rose to become part of the Jackson Hole group in Wyoming, a 1990s gathering of chief executives who met to discuss the health-care funding crisis in the US. '(They) came up with the whole notion of managed care ... which is generally considered not to be a success in the US,'' he admits.

He frequently represents the pharmaceutical industry, a job with which he has few qualms, apart from his concerns the industry could have 'made life less difficult for itself'' on issues such as access to medicines for poor countries and other health-care reform issues. 'I don't lose sleep as an old liberal,'' he laughed.

'I am just a huge believer that if the 20th century was the telecommunications revolution, the 21st century is going to be the bio-tech revolution ... it's going to provide huge benefits to mankind.''

Off to the mainland with his wife, a photographer, and two young children to go hiking in the Yellow Mountains and 'see the Three Gorges before they're flooded'', it was hard not to think that if anyone could make the drug industry sound like it was up there with the democratic icons of the 20th century, it would be him.


Jack Leslie, 48, is global chairman of Weber Shandwick Worldwide. He is a graduate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He worked as a senior aide to Senator Edward Kennedy and as a strategist with several heads of state. Mr Leslie is registered as a foreign agent because of his work with the governments of the Philippines, Chile and Columbia. He is also the chairman of the United States board for the United Nations' High Commission for Refugees.