PR For The "New" Technology CEO

For CEOs of technology companies, arrogance is out and humility is in. “Boring is the new black,” proclaims New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo in a piece about the latest trend for technology company chiefs. Whereas they once reveled in being colorful, brash, and outspoken, today’s leaders have quieted down a bit. The trend has implications for traditional tech company PR campaigns that focus on the top guy.

I don’t concur with every example Manjoo cites (since when was Bill Gates considered charismatic?), but there’s no doubt things have changed for Silicon Valley. Once held up as the embodiment of American innovation, Big Tech is now seen as partly responsible for many of society’s problems — from income inequality to the erosion of personal privacy. Media attitudes have hardened, too.  Most journalists aren’t fan boys waiting breathlessly for the next gadget launch; they’re just as apt to be tough on company leaders, or to pounce on bad news.

With its changing reputation comes a new caution in CEO conduct. Being outrageous, or even quirky, is risky. And since the #metoo movement, many high-level male executives in the Valley are running scared. They have a good reason. Sixteen months ago, Travis Kalanick was the freewheeling, bad-boy CEO of Uber and Susan Fowler, who spent “one very very strange year” there, was an unknown software engineer who quietly departed after unrelenting sexual harassment and discrimination. Today, Kalanick is out of the company he founded and Fowler has been brought on by the New York Times as opinion editor. My, how things turn.

So how is a technology leader to stand out as the face of a company? Most tech companies, among others, want to steer away from the “cult of personality” approach, understandably. Yet the C-level role is more critical than ever.

The good news is that CEO “thought leadership” is easier to achieve in periods of rapid social and technology change. And during divisive times, people are hungry for real insights. In fact, now may be an opportune time to take a new approach to personal branding for corporate leaders. But the key isn’t really to play it safe or to be boring.

How should a CEO convey leadership?

Leaders talk about ideas

Is there anything more powerful than an exciting idea that hasn’t been realized? I was reminded of this recently when someone tweeted a portion of President John F. Kennedy’s “moon speech” — “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It was a rallying cry for the entire country and served as a metaphor for American ingenuity, competitiveness, and idealism.

Focus on the future 

Looking forward is the key to staying relevant, and when it comes to technology businesses in particular, all eyes look to the future. Forecasts, preparation, and anticipation of changes to come should be a staple of every technology CEO’s public script. The future is exciting, especially if we’re prepared for it.

Master the message

Sometimes a trend is happening in front of us, but we don’t realize it, or it hasn’t been identified. The leader who captures it can take the credit.  Malcolm Gladwell had some striking observations about how ideas spread, but it was only after he packaged his thoughts under a label borrowed from epidemiology that “the tipping point” was born.

Zig when others zag

Who doesn’t love a contrarian? PR and corporate comms people have known this for years. If a C-level executive has views or ideas that are legitimately against the grain, they will clearly help differentiate his brand and that of the organization.

Be hopeful

We may be in a buoyant economic time now, but in many sectors the environment is divisive and uncertain rather than optimistic. We’re starved for hope, and a business leader who can inspire with solutions and confident expectation will exert far greater influence than the CEO who simply diagnoses our ills.

Lead

What could be more obvious, right? But involvement outside of one’s own category is what separates a strong company captain from a great leader. Look at Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, for example. Benioff remains a larger-than-life character, but he has made social change and climate action a key goal for Salesforce. He called for the Silicon Valley community to address inequality and homelessness in San Francisco and backed it with millions in donated funds. Along with others, Benioff has committed to helping take on global climate change through the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit.

That’s the kind of inspiring leadership that CEOs don’t need to be quiet about.

The PR Case For The Social CEO

Not long ago, a chief executive could lead a business, even a large one, fairly quietly, leaving public relations and social media management to the corporate communications team. The CEO job was mainly to deliver a strong financial performance.

Today, things are different. A capable business leader is expected to also serve as a brand ambassador, a voice for corporate reputation, and a social media personality.

Yet social engagement presents both opportunities and risks for the top guy. Steve Tappin puts it well when he explains that the rise of social media represents not just a technological shift, but a cultural one, for business leaders. Mastering digital technology is the easy part. Shaping a unique point of view and knowing when and how to weigh in is a bit trickier. C-level executives feel pressed to grow a presence on major social platforms and to show currency on matters ranging from politics to pop culture.

Are Social CEOs More Successful?

When used well, social media blends direct communication with customers and employees, thought leadership, and brand-building. Above all, it helps create a more accessible and authentic image for a C-level leader and the business s/he represents.

But are socially adept CEOs actually more successful than those who shun the social spotlight?  Those who push CEOs to be social tend to be―surprise!―PR and digital marketing people or other chief executives with a vested interest, like Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite.

And there’s the risk factor.  It hasn’t helped that our current president is famous for his use of Twitter. Mr. Trump’s impulsive tweets have been a red flag to some corporate executives who dread being his target, and who’d rather be below the radar in any event. Only 39% of Fortune 500 CEOs have a social profile, and most who are active on social media use the relatively tame LinkedIn.

Yet there is some objective data that makes the case for the social CEO. A 2015 Weber Shandwick study found that executives who are active on social media or create content for digital channels are seen as good communicators and are among the most well-regarded business leaders.

Most PR and reputation experts agree that a strong social profile is a means to differentiate a business executive’s brand as well as convey the kinds of ideas and opinions that inform a thought leadership platform. It’s also efficient. A social executive can reach and engage with journalists, influencers, and employees with a single tweet or post. Social content has a humanizing effect on the brand, making it and the resulting conversation more authentic.

Beyond the most celebrated social CEOs like Marc Benioff and Richard Branson, I think Lenovo’s Yuanqing Yang does many things right as an ardent social media proselytizer. Yang is more typical of the future CEO, who will increasingly use social platforms (his are Twitter, LinkedIn, and Weibo) to build and engage a global following.

One benefit of a strong social profile that doesn’t get enough attention is the internal PR factor. A social media presence can help with recruiting and employee communications.  It’s also not just about broadcasting your views or posting company updates; true social engagement is about interaction. Yang is a LinkedIn Influencer, but he makes it a point to interact directly with the public so that his company and its customers can learn from each other.

Seven Tips for the Social CEO and C-level Execs

Social media is most valuable to a social CEO or C-level executive as part of an overall communications strategy. Here are some key points to note in planning such a strategy.

Start by listening

Social sites like Twitter and LinkedIn are more than platforms; they are communities, and they can be unique vehicles for tuning into the conversations of customers and stakeholders. As Hootsuite’s Ryan Holmes points out, Twitter is a great source of intelligence―from competitors, analysts, pundits, and others.  After weeks of listening to conversations about your industry and issues that affect it, it becomes easier and more natural to engage others.

Stick to a social media strategy 

Which audiences can be reached more efficiently or powerfully through social content? For example, a strong C-level LinkedIn profile and quality content relevant to prospective hires can enhance a company’s recruiting function. What are the organization’s communications priorities when it comes to telling its story?  Where do visuals come into play in simplifying a complex technology or scientific narrative? What simple metrics (engagement, re-posts, followship) can you set to gauge progress?  A simple strategy will help keep the social program from becoming a casualty of being overly ambitious. Only 62% of CEOs with a Twitter account are active, according to CEO.com.  Maybe they wanted to claim their handle to head off hijackers, but it’s not a good look for a CEO to have a dormant Twitter feed. It looks like no one’s home.

Share the responsibility

We talk about the social CEO, but a social media commitment is something that can and should be shared across key members of the leadership team. Most senior teams offer distinct subject-matter experts, and that expertise is both valuable and shareable. A CMO or chief revenue officer will offer insights that are different from those of a quality officer or chief executive, but social content should be linked by a common strategy and organizational values. When it comes to social media, a shared commitment can take the pressure off the top guy, but more importantly, it extends the program and makes it more authentic and enduring.

When it comes to content, mix it up

Some C-level tweets are painfully self-conscious. Others are clearly composed by others – overly commercial, colorless and devoid of personality. It doesn’t have to be that way. A novice CEO should mix personal observations and opinions with sharper reflections about business or industry trends. Entrepreneurship and leadership are always fruitful topics. Business travel, last books read, the day’s headlines, family―all can be great social fodder. If all else fails, try sports. There’s always something happening, with a fan base to match.

Consider a C-level blog

A blog is still a natural hub for a CEO’s voice, and it’s a logical first step in establishing a content program. It’s also a practical way to address part of the problem of what to post/tweet.  It offers opportunities to mix it up with guest posts, post video entries or interviews, and use graphics to illustrate insights.

Invite commentary

This goes without saying; it’s the essence of social engagement. A skillful CEO will ask questions, use Twitter polls, jump on hashtags (judiciously), and RT or repost the content of other company leaders or customers.

Embrace advocacy

In my experience, advocacy can help many C-levels overcome reluctance or even shyness. It’s ideal if the platform is business-related―like STEM education for a technology company CEO or a focus on entrepreneurship for a CEO who got his or her start by bootstrapping a business.  But it isn’t limited to business; it can be support for a charity or other.  The important thing is a genuine connection.

An earlier version of this post appeared on The American Marketing Association’s Executive Circle blog on March 28, 2017.

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.

Making PR A Priority In The C-Suite

As PR execs strive to  keep public relations front and center with CEOs, consider some “prep work” that will make the case to decision-makers and keep smart, results-driven PR in the forefront.

What  defines executive-championed work? Programs that support leadership goals, like enhancing corporate reputation and increasing sales or profits. Issues that resonate with the chief executive. To successfully sell in a PR campaign,  all of the above should and can be addressed in a proposal.

Find out what matters to leadership. Some simple sleuthing will help determine leadership’s feelings about PR and how involved they have been in the past. Play to a CEO who likes the spotlight by bolstering a thought leadership campaign. You can also determine how a CSR program may best flourish by ferreting out a pet CEO cause.

Seek input from others who matter – even known naysayers.  Talk to other key staffers who have “touched” PR at the organization. Do this ahead of time so you can benefit from their experience and are  prepared to deal with anticipated objections.

Design the strategy to reflect what has been learned. Tie objectives, strategies and tactics to key learnings and research for an airtight presentation to senior management.

Create reasonable expectations. CEOs need KPIs! Without overpromising, present a thought-out recommendation with clear, manageable expectations for results.
Be willing to compromise and yes, even sacrifice. It helps to present more than one (well thought out) option, know the risks and be very clear on the objectives.

Marshall all resources. Does it make sense to have presenters from other teams help make the case? Be judicious but absolutely consider strong players with successful track records to join in the presentation.

Demonstrate skills and “stickiness” —  an ability to keep the audience tuned to the presentation. Present creatively, forcefully and briefly! Make each message count by offering compelling visuals, meaningful examples and ideas that can be easily grasped without a lot of explanation.

Have the four “A’s” in your back pocket.  Speak C-level language and offer up a plan that includes the following: a needs Audit, a sound Approach, detailed Action plan and a methodology for Analytics.

How To Sell PR To The C-Suite

Public relations has come a long way in recent years, but PR budgets are still vulnerable during a downturn, company retrenchment, or change in business focus. That’s why most PR professionals, whether inside the corporation or at a partner agency, are in continuous selling mode. How do we support our clients in presenting PR as an investment rather than an expense, and one that is well worth making?

Here are some tips for “selling” the PR investment to a C-level decision-maker.

Promote outcomes rather than outputs.
The industry has been moving in this direction for some time, but it’s still easy to get caught up in tangibles, like events, article placements, or speaking opportunities secured. A more strategic way to go is with specific outcomes that are aligned with business objectives, like attracting business partners, changing opinion, or developing a reputation for specialized expertise.

Use data wisely.
Use data, yes, but keep it light at the top, with greater granularity available if needed. Always have far more information available than you think you will need; you want to be prepared to back up recommendations or assumptions with detailed evidence, but too much detail at the outset can make you seem lost in the weeds.

Offer insights as well as outcomes.
A C-level exec may not be fully cognizant of the scope and benefits of a strategic PR commitment. It should be as much about assessing perception, identifying vulnerabilities, and creating opportunities as it is about publicity output and results. The PR or Communications Director should be seen as a source of strategic insights for making more informed business decisions, not just the queen of publicity placements or press conferences.

Get around assumptions.
Even when constructing a B-school-style case for PR as a critical business function, it’s often necessary to make assumptions. But assumptions aren’t airtight. You can make them more defensible by offering “best case,” “expected case,” and “worst case” scenarios relative to demand generation or reputation health, for example.

Focus on the pain points.
Yes, the classic pain-based selling strategy can be particularly effective here. A strategic PR program is a defensive as well as a proactive tool. So, it can be a legitimate investment for achieving an improved online reputation, quantifiable visibility for a new product launch; or a commitment to more effective recruitment practices.

Be accountable.
Senior executives are often more likely to approve a budget when accountability is clear. In an agency situation, they know the buck stops with me, unlike a group supervisor at a holding company who could be gone next month. Within the corporation, that translates into the PR or Communications Director staking their performance goals to the achievement of specific outcomes.

Amortize the investment.
This can be tricky when selling to a CMO, where tenures are notoriously short and there’s pressure to deliver dynamic results quickly, but public relations is best viewed as a long-term commitment that pays reputation and brand visibility dividends over time.

For more on this topic, see PRSA’s excellent library on selling PR’s value.

Crisis Management: When The Crisis Is The CEO

It’s hard out there for a CEO.

Recently, we witnessed a week’s worth of drip-drip-drip coverage about Yahoo chief Scott Thompson’s resume. The gaffe culminated in Thompson’s resignation after only four months on the job. But the controversy, on the surface, wasn’t about whether he’d faked an advanced degree, or falsely claimed Ivy League credentials. No, this was about his undergraduate major.

The headline-making departure last month was that of Best Buy chief Brian Dunn. Maybe it wasn’t surprising, but it was breathtakingly abrupt, amid unsavory and unsettling rumors of “improper conduct.”

Granted, each of these, and other “CEOs behaving badly” situations was really about company performance. And in Thompson’s case, the growing crisis wasn’t handled well. But it’s obvious that the stakes are higher than ever for the head guy. Controversy over executive pay, diminishing public confidence, and the news cycle have conspired to make even seemingly trivial missteps a big story.

The implications of the new, more perilous chief executive role aren’t lost on those who recruit and install the top guns, or on professional communicators. Corporate boards will redouble efforts to troubleshoot potential problems in advance. And it’s only right that chief executive prospects should be vetted with the zeal and rigor of (most) presidential candidates. Every weakness, peccadillo, or hint of scandal can, and will, come out.

At a time when a strong, communications-savvy CEO is more needed than ever, corporate strategists and PR specialists will become even more cautious about putting the head guy out there. A deep and visible executive bench is a strong communications strategy, and, these days, good risk management. But it’s more likely that access to the executive team will simply become scarcer for journalists.

The bottom line, of course, is that most of the responsibility lies with the chief executive. The occupant of the corner office needs to acknowledge his/her shortcomings, seek the best advice from those outside the inner circle, and be aware of when a problem or crisis has grown beyond their capability to address it. A terrific example of the “new” CEO who actively seeks counsel around his own leadership development is that of Mark Zuckerberg, as detailed in a recent New York Times piece. Yet, Zuckerberg, who will be 28 next week, is an anomaly even for a technology company.

The imperial CEO is long dead, and well he should be. And maybe we shouldn’t feel too sorry for the guys who can generally pull a ripcord on a golden parachute and go home to a fat bank account. But it’s possible that the pendulum has swung too far from the command-and-control days. The margin for error is so thin that you have to ask yourself, at some point, who’s going to want this job? When accountability turns into scapegoating, it’s a losing proposition for everyone.