Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Executive speeches online

At the 2008 National Communication Association conference Joshua Boyd
and Stephen Boyd presented research about "Executive speeches online."
They found that most speeches, although informative, were not
particularly great speeches. They lacked good form.

Here are a few paragraphs from their paper which describe some of the
better speeches they found from their search of the Internet.

"Though the overall picture here is one of the public speech as a
minor (if not trivial) tool of investor relations, there were a
handful of corporations that seemed to place great emphasis on
speeches. Their speeches did more than report earnings and project
the next quarter's results—they used more sophisticated rhetorical
strategies in order to burnish image and manage issues. In order to
provide a richer picture of what the study found, we analyze one
speech from each of three companies that demonstrated through their
websites the positive value they placed on speeches.

John Deere, with 14 speeches available in just three clicks, has a
CEO who takes great pride in preparing and delivering speeches as an
important part of his leadership (M. Doss, personal communication, 10
January 2007). One of the speeches available online is titled "No
Smoke, No Mirrors—Straight Down the Middle," an address delivered by
CEO Robert W. Lane to students of the Mendoza College of Business at
Notre Dame on September 27, 2006. The speech is focused on integrity,
and he pulls no punches in discussing political scandals (albeit from
the Grant and Harding administrations) and recent business scandals.
His audience adaptation includes acknowledging the College's highly
ranked business ethics program and even quoting a recent article by
the professor who introduced him. There is a clear connection to
corporate social responsibility when he talks about world hunger and
the company's commitment to increasing use of alternative fuels. And
as a good organizational rhetor attending to his organization's
image, he reinforces John Deere's identity in all of this by quoting
the founding Deere: "I will not put my name on a product that does
have in it the best that is in me."

Merck, with 63 speeches available in five clicks, reflects a focus on
image restoration in many of its speeches. In the aftermath of the
Vioxx scandal, in which the company removed a drug from the market
due to its fatal side effects, many of the posted speeches address
this crisis and attempt to bolster the company's image. One such
speech was delivered by CEO Raymond Gilmartin to the Jonathan Club in
Los Angeles, on February 15, 2005. Though the speech appears
primarily to trumpet Merck's corporate social responsibility, it
might also be categorized as an image restoration bolstering strategy
(Benoit, 1995) in the aftermath of the Vioxx scandal. As speakers for
the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey did almost exactly 100 years
earlier (Boyd, 2001), Gilmartin addresses not the alleged wrongdoing,
but rather all of the good works and great benefits the company has
brought to the world. And it is an impressive litany —medicines to
fight measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis, asthma, and cholesterol;
vaccinations against rotavirus, shingles, and cervical cancer;
research on drugs to treat stroke, HIV/AIDS, and lymphoma; free drugs
for needy American families through the Patient Assistance Program;
and free drugs to people all over the developing world. Merck
skillfully doubles its investment in this speech, however, by not only
bolstering its status in light of its recent crisis, but by laying
groundwork for favorable issue management. In values advocacy mode
(Bostdorff & Vibbert, 1994), the CEO first lays out all of these
advances (which praise values of innovation, ending suffering, and
helping the needy) and then moves from those widely accepted values
into his advocacy of a private sector solution for American
healthcare problems. Gilmartin ties together these twin goals of
bolstering and values advocacy by also quoting his organization's own
founder, George W. Merck, who said, "We try to remember that medicine
is for the patient. It is not for the profits…."

General Motors is the quantity leader in this study, with 220
transcripts available at its website. Bob Lutz, GM Vice Chairman,
delivered the speech "The Lost Art of Fun" to the Global Product
Development Group in Detroit on April 12, 2005. Lutz, though no
celebrity, is noted for his vehicle development at Chrysler, Ford, and
GM, as well as for his innovation (even in his 70s) in blogging on
GM's corporate website (Catalano, 2007). His speech is far enough
removed from the drudgery of formulaic financial reports that it even
starts with a joke. The joke tells of a man who tries to get into a
trendy night spot but is told he has to wear a tie. He has no tie, so
he looks through his car and all he can come up with is a set of
jumper cables. He manages to swirl it around his neck and fashion
something of a knot, with the ends hanging free. He goes back to the
door, the bouncer looks him over suspiciously for a few moments, and
then says, "Well, okay. I guess you can come in—just don't start
anything." This opening, to an audience of primarily engineers,
makes a clear statement about the value of this speech, not only for
the information it might impart, but for its ability to deliver on the
promise of its title. As Lutz continues the speech, he explains
contrasts between American and European engineers and admonishes the
Americans to have fun tearing things apart and putting them back
together, to use creativity and curiosity to get their hands dirty and
recover the lost art of fun. Perhaps executives at other
corporations deliver similar kinds of [market-driven] motivational
speeches, but from this study it is clear that not many organizations
choose to share such speeches with outside publics."

Presented at NCA, November 22, 2008, San Diego, CA

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