Ladies and gentlemen, we present an exclusive.
We have Michael Capellas, the chairman and CEO of long-distance phone giant MCI, speaking on the cascade of recent bad news that has engulfed his company. This is MCI (née Worldcom), the company with the credo, We're the second-largest long-distance company in the country — but when it comes to creative accounting, we're second to none!
Here's Capellas explaining why MCI can't produce basic financial procedures that satisfy the federal government: "The fact that our financial systems need work is certainly not news. . . . We've got an internal team aggressively working on it. . . . And we're going to drive this one home!"
Here's Capellas on why it has taken so long to develop ethical standards and an ethics-training program: "It has been an interesting balance in . . . developing this program of finding the correct balance between the science of ethics and the practical execution that comes in the field."
It is hard to do the right thing, isn't it?
Michael Capellas shared all this — and more! — on the afternoon the federal government temporarily barred MCI from more government business. A year after MCI filed the largest corporate bankruptcy in history, its accounting and ethical practices still didn't meet the entry-level standards set for federal contractors. Also that week, three large competitors lodged detailed complaints that MCI disguised and rerouted calls to avoid paying millions of dollars in fees.
In the face of these rather bleak tidings, Capellas called an urgent press event. Four-hundred reporters, including those from the Associated Press, Business Week, and The Wall Street Journal, all participated. Capellas thanked us all several times for coming. He had an opening statement, he fielded more than a dozen questions, he had a closing statement — and he said absolutely nothing.
We have become so accustomed to speechifying and blathering that we hardly notice anymore. Public and company officials routinely spend 30 minutes talking solemnly, without saying anything on the topic they've come to discuss. And no one calls them on it. Regarding the government's withering judgment of MCI's accounting and ethics, Capellas had this to say: "We respect it." Capellas respects being suspended from government contracts? What does that mean, exactly? We're still a mess, thanks so much for noticing?
Capellas came to MCI in November 2002 with a solid reputation as a manager. His leadership and standards, and his ability to motivate, explain, and inspire will help determine if MCI, which carries roughly half the Internet traffic in the United States, survives. So his rare public performances are of significance. In that spirit, we faithfully recorded his carefully crafted closing remarks: "I would like to tell the world that we are hard at work. This is tough stuff. . . . I'm pretty proud of the progress we've made. We're going to drive the thing all the way through."
Next time, just put it in a press release.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.