Meloyde Blancett-Scott may be the only public relations executive in the country who has the word “reputation” in her title. And she has found that titles can be important, and extremely useful in changing the way that others within the organization regard the role of what used to be corporate communications.
Reputation is like a train,” says Thrifty-Rent-a-Car’s president and ceo Don Himmelfarb. “And spirit is the track that it runs on.”
By a simple extension of that analogy, Meloyde Blancett-Scott is the chief engineer at Thrifty, responsible for making sure that the train is running smoothly and there are no obstructions on the track. In actuality, her title is staff vice president, reputation, spirit and planning. She may be the only senior executive in corporate American with the word “reputation” in her title.
Blancett-Scott, like most of her fellow managers at Thrifty, got to choose the title herself. In the midst of a cultural revolution that followed the company’s takeover by Chrysler Corporation, management was looking for a way to convey symbolically that it was no longer business as usual - allowing people to choose their own titles was one tactic it employed. The human resources department became known as “hire and inspire,” and Himmelfarb himself became known as “captain” - a designation chosen by employees. Blancett-Scott chose “reputation and spirit.”
“The exercise gave me an opportunity to reflect on what my job ought to be about, and I felt that reputation was at the heart of it,” Blancett-Scott says. “Internally, it seemed that spirit described what I thought my role could be in changing the corporate culture.”
Her role today covers three main areas. She is responsible for counseling management on the likely reputation impact of its decisions and ensuring that reputation is leveraged in the marketplace. She is responsible for the spirit of employees, for their understanding of and commitment to the company’s goals - a vital role in a company undergoing a major cultural overhaul. And recently she added planning to her title, reflecting her role as one of the architects of the cultural revolution that Himmelfarb is leading.
Blancett-Scott joined Thrifty Rent-a-Car in 1987, as director of corporate communications. Her previous experience included a stint as a reporter on the Tulsa Tribune, marketing positions with two real estate companies, and most recently an executive on the Thrifty account at Brown Bloyed & Associates and Ad Inc., two local advertising and public relations firms.
Her first assignment at Thrifty was a simple one: creating the company’s first corporate communications department and guiding it through its initial public offering of common stock. “One of my first jobs was writing the preliminary prospectus,” she says. “The job was basically investor relations. Broader public relations was really not part of the picture. Management at that time did not regard public relations as being of much strategic relevance.”
Thrifty at the time was, Blancett-Scott says, “a very left brained company... very structured.” That did not change until two years later, when the company was acquired by Chrysler Corporation, and a new management team arrived, led by Don Himmelfarb.
For Blancett-Scott, it was a classic case of a turning a threat into an opportunity.
“The first problem was that my job had consisted almost entirely of investor relations, and suddenly we had no more investors,” she says. “The second problem was that I had invested tremendous time and energy winning the respect of a management that was no longer there. I felt as though I was starting completely from scratch. Fortunately, from my first meeting with Don Himmelfarb, it was apparent that he had a long term, relationship oriented approach to management, and that he understood the importance of reputation to the organization’s long-term success.”
The previous management had operated on the assumption that the car rental business was, essentially, a commodity business, and that the only real point of differentiation between competitors was price. Thus Thrifty was basically designed to be a carbon copy of others in the market. Not surprisingly, this strategy was not especially effective in moving the company forward or helping it in its quest to become a market leader.
It was clear to Himmelfarb that the company needed to differentiate itself from the competition. Several options were examined - speed of service, car selection, location and convenience - and rejected. Ultimately, Blancett-Scott reports, management decided that what would really set Thrifty apart from the competition was “the service experience, our personality, our style, our culture.”
Himmelfarb recognized that the company’s real customers were its franchisees, and that what they were buying was basically the Thrifty name, and the associations it carried for their customers. Under those circumstances, adding value to and protecting that name became a priority.
“We had something in our culture that we were not leveraging to our advantage,” she says. Management looked at companies in other industries that had succeeded in differentiating themselves on the basis of their culture, including Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Southwest Airlines, examining their employee relations practices, their customer service policies, and their operating philosophy. “We decided we needed to achieve a real cultural revolution.”
One of the first steps was the title change, which allowed Blancett-Scott to shrug off the “corporate communications” mantle that she says restricted the scope of her activities and led other senior managers to regard her department as a secondary, tactical function.
“I never realized how much a title puts you in a certain box,” she says now. “It colors the way other people think about what you should be doing and what you should not even be involved in. Corporate communications was something people called on after a decision was made, to help them communicate the decision. Reputation is something that needs to be considered when the decision is being made. I use the title to explain how this function can be used and what its possibilities are.”
Thrifty’s overseas operations are in the midst of a reorganization, Blancett-Scott says. In the past, her three-person team might have been called in to compose a press release about the changes; today she is brought in much earlier in the process, to evaluate the reputational implications of decisions and their implications for various stakeholder groups, to identify problems that might result in reputation erosion and to make sure opportunities are taken advantage of.
“There’s an understanding that public relations techniques can be used to change behavior and to build relationships, rather than simply as a conduit for the exchange of information,” she says.
Himmelfarb agrees: “Meloyde’s department had been performing a number of functions that were pretty non-traditional in terms of what most of us felt public relations was supposed to be in an organization. Her role is one of protecting and managing the reputation and name of the company. She is involved not only in executing tactics, but in planning and strategy.”
Blancett-Scott is equally appreciative of Himmelfarb’s role in the reputation process, emphasizing that cultural change of the kind Thrifty is experiencing must be zealously encouraged by the chief executive. “Many ceos, when you talk about these issues, their eyes cloud over,” Blancett-Scott says. “He understands the broader issues and how they can impact the bottom line.”
Himmelfarb also acknowledges that not everyone bought in to the new vision of public relations that he and Blancett-Scott believed in. Some - including the personnel department - felt that “reputation and spirit” was infringing on their turf. But most have come around over time, he says, as the new department has demonstrated that it can help them achieve their objectives.
Nevertheless, there was a recognition when the culture change process began that it might take several years for its impact to be felt, and Blancett-Scott says that to date the impact on customer relations has been negligible, but internally it’s a different story, as employees demonstrate a greater loyalty to the company, a greater enthusiasm for shared goals, and an increased willingness to challenge old assumptions about the way things should be done.
Blancett-Scott cites a benchmark study, in the wake of the management transition, that revealed considerable unhappiness, a feeling that management had not communicated any clear vision or shown a willingness to listen to employees. Her department created and administers an employee suggestion program, and helped implement a series of luncheons at which rank and file employees can sit down with the president and share their ideas. Such initiatives have resulted in steady improvement in employee attitudes in follow-up surveys.
Himmelfarb hails Blancett-Scott’s achievements in two areas: “First, the company appears to the outside world to be much larger than it actually is. We have a reputation that is much larger than our size would imply. That gives us credibility, and helps us sell to franchisees, and helps them sell. It helps us with banks and credit services. Second, there has been a transformation to the extent that this is not the same company it was 24 months ago. There is much more employee support than when we started.”
The tracks are laid, and the train is moving forward.