In today‘s media environment, a PR savvy CEO can be an enormous asset to a company and its public image. We’re living through the cult of the media CEO right now. Legendary entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson are worshiped like rock stars. No detail of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s conduct (or wardrobe) is too small to escape notice. Starbucks founder Howard Schultz reprised his CEO role and rescued his company, all in public view. Entrepreneurs in particular are the personification of their corporate brands. But all CEOs, for better or worse, serve as stewards of a company’s reputation, an enormous—though intangible—responsibility.
But most chief executives aren’t like celebrity CEOs and do not fulfill the role of a PR savvy CEO. Many lack the time, charisma, or commitment to be a media spokesperson. Some don’t trust the press, and most shy away from social media as an alternative to traditional journalistic channels. Sixty-eight percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies have no social media presence at all, according to a study from CEO.com.
Executive transparency comes with risks. A corporate chief who is too colorful or simply inarticulate can damage a company’s image. Lululemon founder Chip Wilson recently stepped down after his public comments (and libertarian leanings) unraveled the retailer’s reputation and exacerbated product quality problems.
For communicators whose CEOs aren’t the next Jeff Bezos, it can be hard to carve out the right role for the C-suite. How well a CEO performs as a PR asset is influenced by personality, point of view, and opinions or experience regarding journalism and social media. And there’s a wide variation in when the CEO should be involved in corporate communications.
But there are times in nearly every company’s history that beg for the involvement of the a PR Savvy CEO. Here are six.
To sell a new strategy. The chief executive will convey more authority—and garner more media attention—than anyone else for a new direction or shift in company strategy. This typically translates into valuable earned media coverage which should be leveraged to articulate the direction for customers or partners through the megaphone of business or trade press and social media.
To launch a key product. It’s no accident that technology company CEOs routinely announce new products at major trade shows or forums. Even if it’s just to introduce a senior product executive who will then go through a features overview, it confers that C-level boost that tells us this is a priority announcement and a move to watch.
To show leadership during a company crisis. If the company’s reputation is at stake, a PR savvy CEO should be a visible and steadying public presence. In a high-risk situation, the CEO may choose not to open up to journalists but to use social media instead to issue a fast response or pledge of action. But a truly reputation threatening event usually requires a longer-term commitment by the company chief, like then CEO David Neeleman’s PR famous “apology tour” in the wake of JetBlue’s grounding of flights in 2007.
To advocate during government or regulatory scrutiny. There can be risks here, but in my experience the PR savvy CEO is usually the best advocate in times of regulatory change. A clear position on an issue, well articulated at the top, goes a long way toward advancing a company or industry point of view, and it offers valuable public support to allies, employees, and customers in what is often a protracted PR battle.
To smooth a planned corporate transition. It’s important to stakeholders that a new CEO, or one who takes the helm during a time of industry change or an uncertain economy, make his vision clear. A skilled corporate communications head will use the inherent news value of the move to generate broadcast airtime, op/ed space, or owned content to communicate the company message, manage the transition, and pave the way for a new phase of leadership.
To lead an internal cultural shift. The CEO acts as Chief Engagement Officer with company employees, particularly during a turnaround. It’s not necessarily helpful or advisable to go public with internal communications, but sometimes it adds beneficial pressure. This is why Marissa Mayer’s edict against telecommuting for Yahoo employees, which was disclosed in a leaked company memo, inadvertently became a business case history. To Yahoo watchers, including its rank-and-file staff, Mayer’s memo was a metaphor for her larger battle to revitalize a bureaucratic and sleepy company culture.