Your CEO ... The Best Way to Project a Company's Brand FranchiseBy: Andy Marken
In the rush of the dotcom world, startups struggle desperately for eyeballs and a real or imagined reason for existence. Flush with millions of other people’s money and no positive cashflow in sight they move rapidly to establish mindshare in an industry that changes on a daily basis.To quickly sell their intangible benefits, many borrow recognition and credibility by hiring William Shatner, Whoopi Goldberg and other spokespersons. Others like Amazon.com, eBay, Yahoo! and AOL take a different path. They leverage their key asset, their CEOs, to build unique stars people can identify with and trust.
When the final tabulations are made, individuals and companies will vote with their checkbooks. At that time we feel the winners will clearly be Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Meg Whitman (eBay), Tim Koogle (Yahoo!) and Steve Chase (AOL).
Properly positioned, properly trained and properly used the company’s CEO is the organization’s most powerful marketing asset. He or she, better than anyone else, can establish the company’s market position and project the organization’s brand franchise and charter for existence.
Historically we, and other PR professionals, have taken minor and major issues and developed them into position statements for clients. We’ve done the research and legwork to develop opportunities for company executives to speak with reporters and before audiences. We’ve briefed the press. And we’ve briefed CEOs on questions they can expect and potential responses. In other words, media training for them has been casual.
The Surprise Question
Earlier this year, the inadequacy of this approach was brought home. We had garnered an interview slot for the company president on one of the growing number of TV shows that cover computer, communications and entertainment technology. The host and crew went through a number of dry runs with our boss to make him more comfortable and more expressive in front of the camera. A typical, thoughtful president of a computer industry company; our CEO found it tough to get “excited” about the technology and product he had helped nurture for more than three years.
When they were satisfied with his on-camera comfort and still subdued enthusiasm, they did their final take. Everything went smoothly during the five-minute interview…until the closing question. The host asked a totally new question regarding competitive products. Having done live and taped TV shows for a number of years I immediately saw the surprise in our CEO’s eyes and beads of sweat form on his upper lip. Despite being caught off guard, our man did a decent job of recovering and answering the question.
Leveling the Playing Field
Immediately after the taping we did a post mortum. He knew that the volume of such interviews was going to increase and that we couldn’t deflect or protect him from every query. He understood that questions were going to come out of left field and he had to learn how to turn even antagonistic encounters to his advantage.
He agreed that if he was going to be the effective company spokesperson he had to learn how to develop and present the soundbytes that reporters and interviewers hunt for to produce lively copy and interviews. Simply stating the facts and sticking to a script wasn’t an option. We arranged for him to interview three different media training organizations. On his own time, and at his own expense, he got the training he needed to be effective with the media.
Like most CEOs he still prefers the well-scripted and “friendly” product and market-focused interviews. We find that we no longer have to redirect or deflect/reshape many of the questions. Instead we can see that he can almost visualize the story as it will appear and is able to make his points and inject his soundbytes at just the right time.
He’s more comfortable. He’s more effective. And increasingly the reporter or interviewer goes away with a good story that serves his readers, listeners or viewers. They also leave with a story that meets our corporate and marketing objectives.
The Changing CEO Role
In companies of every size the CEO is a pivotal asset. In a number of instances there is no substitute. Unfortunately most CEOs don’t acknowledge and aren’t comfortable in this role. They refuse to be responsible for one of their key corporate functions. At the same time, they hold public relations responsible for not getting their company the same level and quality of exposure as other firms in their industry.
While they hide behind engineering, manufacturing and “business” tasks they subconsciously envy the coverage others in their industry receive. Their reluctance to step from behind the curtain makes the PR job extremely difficult and at times impossible.
The Resource Challenge
The challenge for PR people today is that there is no longer time to carry out an escalating program of building brand equity for a company. It must be done quickly and it is an effort that is constantly changing. The only way to develop and nurture branding on a global scale is to use your people resources properly.
Increasingly CEOs understand that being the company spokesperson part of their job description. No one else adds reality to the message. Even if the president is publicity shy it is public relations responsibility to get management to the point where they can comfortably and effectively be the one who adds credibility to the message.
Those CEOs to seize the opportunity for their companies don’t have to be megalomaniacs. They don’t have to be egotists. They simply have to be helped to understand all of the aspects of their jobs.
Fortunately, there are some excellent examples you can point to in making your point.
Solid CEO Brands
You’ll have to excuse our leaning to the technology industries but after more than 20 years in Silicon Valley, you begin to believe everyone lives and works on the edge of disaster.
There are hundreds of other CEOs you could cite around the globe in large companies and small who have become the brand identities for their firm. They have positions. They have opinions. They have visions of the role their companies will play in tomorrow’s marketplace.
So does your CEO. It is public relations challenge to help the company president get the message to the media. If he or she doesn’t look beyond quarterly results or the next new product, move on. Find a company and a CEO who is equal to tomorrow’s uncertainties and challenges.
© Copyright 1999, G.A.Marken, Marken Communications
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