Dorothy Crenshaw March 19, 2015 | 01:04:39
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6 Situations That Call For A PR-Savvy CEO

A new survey of 500 chief executives has both good news and some discouraging findings for public relations agencies; although most CEOs see value in PR, 59 percent say they don’t fully understand the role and capabilities of public relations.

Maybe PR professionals can do a better job of educating the C-suite, not only on the value of PR, but on the chief executive’s own role in the process. A CEO with PR and media skills is an asset to any company, and one who shuns the press may actually undermine its stature.

Some are masters of the game. Look at iconic entrepreneurs like Richard Branson or Steve Jobs, whose reputation lives on beyond his passing. Others must grow into the role, like Deloitte’s Cathy Engelbert, the first female chief of a major accounting firm. For better or worse, a CEO is a steward of a company’s image and reputation.

But most chief executives aren’t like the celebrity CEOs, and they don’t necessarily embrace a role as brand spokesperson. Many lack the time, charisma, or commitment to deal with media.  They don’t trust the press, and they may be wary of social media and its risks. According to a study from CEO.com, 68 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies have no social media presence.

At a more basic level, they may be confused as to their role when it comes to media and constituency relations. And for communicators whose CEOs aren’t the next Marc Benioff, it can be hard to offer guidance for the top exec. How well a CEO serves as a PR asset is informed by individual temperament, opinions and experience with journalism and social media. But there are times in nearly every company’s history that cry out for the involvement of the a PR-savvy CEO. Here are six. 

To announce a new strategy.  The chief executive will confer more authority—and generate more media attention—than other company officers for a new direction or shift in corporate strategy.  This typically translates into valuable earned media coverage which that may be leveraged to articulate company direction for customers or partners through the megaphone of business or trade press and social media.

To launch a key product.  Technology company CEOs often announce new products at key trade shows or forums, even if it’s just to introduce a senior product executive who will then go through a features overview. The involvement of the top exec tells us this is a priority announcement and a move to watch.

To show leadership during a crisis.  If the company’s reputation is in jeopardy, the CEO should be a visible and steadying presence. In a high-risk situation, a PR-knowledgeable chief executive may not necessarily open up to the news media, choosing to use social media instead to issue a fast response or promise of corrective action. But a truly critical event usually requires a longer-term commitment by the company chief, like then CEO David Neeleman’s “apology tour” in the wake of JetBlue’s 2007 grounding of flights and subsequent slide in popularity.

To advocate during government or regulatory scrutiny.  There are risks here, but in my experience the PR-savvy CEO is typically the best advocate in times of regulatory review.  A clear position on an issue, well articulated at the top, helps advance a company or industry viewpoint, and it offers crucial public support to allies, employees, and customers in what is often a lengthy PR battle.

To manage a corporate transition. It’s important to stakeholders that a new chief executive, or one who takes the helm in an environment of change or uncertainty, make his vision clear. A skilled corporate communications head will use the inherent news value of the change to generate media airtime, op/ed space, or owned content to communicate the company position, manage the transition, and pave the way for a new era of leadership.

To signal a cultural shift.  The CEO acts as Chief Engagement Officer with company employees, particularly during a turnaround.  It’s not usually advisable to go public with internal communications, but there’s often no way to prevent leaks, and it’s best to be prepared. Sometimes it even helps a CEO’s position. This is why Marissa Mayer’s edict against telecommuting for Yahoo employees, which was disclosed in a leaked company document, inadvertently became a business case history. To Yahoo watchers, including the rank-and-file, Mayer’s memo was a metaphor for her larger battle to revitalize a bureaucratic and sleepy company culture, a task where she can use all the help at her disposal.

An earlier version of this post was published on March 11, 2015 by MENGBlend.

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