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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’re in a buoyant economic time, 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.

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