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When The CEO Should Be The PR Spokesperson

Photo by Foto Sushi on Unsplash

Public relations teams and their agencies routinely urge leaders to build a public profile through social media and high-level content. But when should the CEO of a major company serve as its public spokesperson? How should a public role align with an organization’s business goals?

Research by Chief Executive magazine and the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations suggests that many CEOs don’t prioritize participation in a public conversation that departs from tangible business goals. Forty-four percent of 210 CEOs surveyed said their most important communication goal for 2019 was to sell the company’s products and services, and 60% said they were unlikely to speak out about any social issue. For those who said they did plan to speak publicly about issues, the most pressing topics named were data privacy, healthcare, and diversity and inclusion.

When asked which communications strategies they considered most valuable, social media and online influencers were chosen by 30% of the CEOs, nosing out original content distributed through their company’s own channels, which was named by 28%. It’s good news that corporate leaders are starting to appreciate the power of social media, but progress has been slow.

Some CEOs are masters of PR – for better or worse, like Elon Musk or Marc Benioff. And even those who aren’t household names have used social media to be visible and connected. Check out Brunswick’s list of the most connected CEOs, topped by Wal-Mart’s Doug McMillon. Being the steward of a company’s image and reputation comes with the job.

But most chief executives aren’t rockstars, and they don’t necessarily embrace a role as brand spokesperson. Many lack the time or commitment to deal with media.  They don’t trust the press, and they may be wary of social media and its risks. Or, as the Annenberg study suggests, communications goals and plans aren’t sufficiently aligned with business priorities.

Most professional communicators agree that a CEO with journalist relations and social media skills can be a great asset to any company, particularly an early stage tech company or an entrepreneurial venture. But we in public relations can do better at guiding our clients on the value of a public profile and the CEO’s own role in building one. Most importantly, the top leader’s role should support business goals.

No matter what a given CEO’s role, there are times in nearly every company’s history that call for the involvement of the a PR-fluent CEO. Here are some of the most common. 

To show leadership during a serious crisis situation

If the company’s reputation is in jeopardy, its CEO becomes the chief emergency officer by default. In a high-risk situation, a PR-knowledgeable chief executive serves as a visible and steadying presence. He or she may not necessarily deal directly with the news media, choosing to use social media channels instead to issue a fast response and to control the reaction. A truly critical event, like one that involves loss of life, major litigation, or a viral story like the United Airlines incident of 2017 usually requires an ongoing commitment by the company chief.

To announce a new strategy

It’s not always about crisis management. A new direction or shift in corporate strategy is best announced by the chief executive, who will confer more authority—and generate greater media attention—than other officers.  CEO involvement typically translates into valuable earned media coverage that may be used to communicate 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 participate in announcements of new products at major trade shows or forums, even if it’s just to introduce a senior product executive who will then officially unveil the priority product and go through a features overview. The involvement of the top exec signals that it’s a priority launch and a move to watch.

To advocate in the face of government or regulatory scrutiny

There are risks to advocacy, but this is an area where business goals and social values can be tightly aligned. In my experience the PR-savvy CEO is typically the best advocate in times of regulatory review, where legislation may threaten the industry, or where it is needed.  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, and sometimes his role goes further. That was what happened when Dara Khosrowshahi was installed as CEO of Uber in 2017. The company had grown fast in part because of the hard-charging personality of founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick, but the resulting culture became toxic. When Kalanick was ultimately forced out, Uber took the unusual step of going public with its message, using its new chief as messenger.  The relatively mild-mannered Khosrowshahi appeared in national television ads where he explained its new cultural values and vowed that Uber would be a “much, much better service.”

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