The Public Relations Strategist

In the C-Suite: The CEO and the Media: The New Reality

October 13, 2015

It wasn’t too long ago that the head of a company could sit in his office (yes, until recently, it was almost always a man) while a team of PR and marketing professionals did the heavy lifting of telling the company’s story to the world.

Those days are gone. You’re very likely to find today’s CEOs on television programs, in corporate videos, on social media and giving high-profile speeches.

People want to hear from the person calling the shots, whether it’s a CEO, a division president or simply a local manager. We’re in an era where the person who communicates — and communicates well — has a distinct advantage.

For a leader today, “going public” is both meeting an obligation and advancing corporate interests. To remain shuttered in the corner office is leaving opportunity — and often money — on the table.

Reasons to go public

Why should a CEO take the time to do a television interview? In fact, why should he or she ever interrupt a heavy schedule to talk to the media at all, when the company has a competent PR arm?

Perhaps the most important of the many reasons is that it puts a face on the organization — hopefully a face that clearly says leadership, vision, competence and trustworthiness. Too many corporations and institutions today are seen as faceless and uncaring.

A Weber Shandwick study conducted earlier this year concluded that 60 percent of a company’s market value is attributed to its reputation. The study also found that nearly 60 percent of global consumers state that their opinions of a company are influenced by what its executives communicate.

Finally, corporate boards of directors are increasingly taking an executive’s media skills into account when choosing a new CEO. Since CEO tenure averages only a little more than three years, an executive’s next job might depend on how well he or she handles the media in his or her current position.

Employee morale boost

There are additional benefits to leaders being media-savvy. Good leadership interviews are a source of pride to people who work for a company. Most employees can’t go on television and tell the world what great things they are accomplishing. But the leader can, and must.

Have you ever watched a video of the late Steve Jobs introducing a new Apple product? Any Apple employee had to be bursting with pride upon seeing how the boss praised both the product and the people who created it each time a new gadget came out. That builds loyalty. And any leader will tell you that employee pride and loyalty reduce turnover and increase both productivity and product quality.

Crisis response advantages

A positive CEO image built over time is invaluable at a time of crisis or negative news. The lack of it feeds distrust of the company, its actions and its motives.

BP’s 2010 explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — which killed 11 people and resulted in vast environmental damage — put then-CEO Tony Hayward in the international spotlight. Not only was he unknown, but he was also clearly unprepared to deal with the media. Hayward’s ill-advised and seemingly uncaring comment “I want my life back” is cited virtually every time the subject of the BP accident comes up.

When the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs ran into a barrage of accusations, investigations, lawsuits and controversies in 2012, it found itself playing catchup in terms of public and media good will.

Chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein recently addressed the situation and said: “I think the average American probably had no contact and had never heard of Goldman Sachs before three years ago. Shame on us in a way for not anticipating how important that would be. We’re an institutional business with no consumers. It turns out, another name for consumers are [sic] citizens and taxpayers.”

The BP and Goldman Sachs examples show why business leaders need media training and public appearances to gain exposure.

Excuses to avoid

Many CEOs have a laundry list of reasons they can’t, or shouldn’t, do a media interview. Here, in italics, is how you can respond to these excuses:

  • “I don’t have time.” Public appearances bolster the company’s reputation. Your PR staff will see to it that much is accomplished in a minimal amount of time.
  • “The focus should be on the company, not on me.” Your job makes you the face — and the primary voice — of the company. No one can put the focus on the company as well as you can.
  • “I’m not an actor.” No one wants you to be. This is about telling the company’s story, not “acting” or being anyone other than yourself.
  • “Have one of my aides do it.” No one at a lower level can speak with the same authority and credibility as the leader.
  • “I don’t want to be a celebrity.” This is about credibility, not celebrity, — yours or the organization’s.

GM’s Mary Barra communicates

Perhaps no one is doing a better job of using today’s communication tools to put a positive face on a company than General Motors’ Mary Barra.

Barra inherited a nightmare when she took over as CEO in January 2014. The company had had five CEOs in six years and was constantly in the news for lawsuits, government investigations, recalls and fatalities from concealed product flaws. Employee morale was low, and so was customer confidence in GM’s integrity and its products. Barra had to rebuild both the company and its image.

So she went public — very public. Media interviews, speeches, corporate videos, social media — you name it.

Here’s what she’s doing this year alone, according to various published reports:

  • Conducting more than 50 interviews with technology, business, digital and broadcast media.
  • Making 30 public appearances, including one or two major speeches.
  • Reaching out to employees through face-to-face meetings, video conferencing and Web chats.
  • Using social media including LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to reach customers, employees and media.

Tony Cervone, GM’s senior vice president for global communications, said Barra’s efforts are paying off. He said of her social media plan: “LinkedIn works great for longer form pieces, Twitter is of-the-moment and Facebook is a good way for people to get to know Mary in a more personal sense.”

“Engagement continues to increase,” he added, “as do followers. And many of her efforts and posts lead to rounds of traditional media pickup as well.”

It’s hard to make a stronger case that today’s CEO needs to be media-active.

Media engagement arguments

What arguments are best for persuading a reluctant executive to make media appearances?

  • They show your expertise and leadership in the profession.
  • They build trust and confidence in employees, customers and other  stakeholders.
  • They often translate to the bottom line and a better share price.
  • They are now essential to credibility if a crisis hits.
Virgil Scudder
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win With the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. Email: virgil@virgilscudder.com.

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