I thought today's decision by the military to finally lift the oft-vilified don't ask, don't tell policy provided an ideal hook with which to weigh in on a disturbing trend in PR; a different type of don't ask, don't tell policy, if you will. I refer to the astounding ability of proven failures to land one plum job after another.
PR's don't ask, don't tell policy is especially overt in large corporations and holding companies. Every week or so, I'll receive an e-mail from someone I know who was recently let go for doing a horrible job. But, his note is entitled, 'Great news!' or 'Movin' on up!' and it informs me that, despite having just been fired from his 37th straight CCO spot, he's just been named head of corporate communications for a global financial institution. Say what?!?!?
And, on the large PR agency front, one has only to double click on any PR daily's 'people on the move' section to see that John Smith has switched jobs once again. He's gone from Porter to Fleishman (or, was it H&K to MSL?). And, there's a note about Jane Doe, who has hopped around more often than the Easter Bunny. She's switching from Golin to Burson (or, is it Weber to Edelman?). They've both landed new gigs heading up a major health care or consumer products group, even though everyone in the know knows they went down in flames at their previous employer. And, they call this the big leagues? Ugh.
So, how do these empty suits survive?
I believe relentless downsizing is the culprit. There are far fewer human resource executives who are being burdened with wading through hundreds, if not thousands, of resumes. So, when a few finalists who possess 'deep sector expertise' and can walk and chew gum at the same time are brought in for interviews, the path of least resistance seems especially attractive.
Human resource managers don't ask John Smith why he's held 18 jobs in seven years. And, Mr. Smith sure as hell won't volunteer the information. So, after a perfunctory reference check (which is a joke since candidates ONLY provide the names of individuals who will provide glowing reports), the empty suit is named vice president of public relations for Massive Corporation, Inc., or EVP and director of WPP's global technology practice. And, once firmly entrenched, they'll spin wheels, achieve nothing, collect huge paychecks and be shown the door once again within 18 months. And, then, the cycle repeats. It's almost like an Animal Planet documentary about Yellowstone Park's ecosystem.
All this wouldn't matter if it wasn't happening everywhere in corporate America (note: I'll bet $100 that recently fired Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz, arguably one of the worst CEOs in recent memory, lands a new, higher paying gig within six months).
I believe pervasive downsizing has enabled otherwise mediocre executives to survive, if not, thrive. The real loser is the American economy. There are multiple reasons why we're rocketing along a highway whose upcoming exits are marked Second World and Third World status, but the Peter Principle is certainly one of them.
Companies who adopt a don't ask, don't tell policy and enable mediocre, empty suits to continue filling plumb jobs aren't just hurting themselves. They're hurting everyone. And, by the way, this would make for a great investigative piece if a PR trade REALLY wanted to do some serious journalism.