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Your CEO ... The Best Way to Project a Company's Brand Franchise

By: Andy Marken

In his nearly 25 years in the advertising/public relations field, Andy has been involved with a broad range of corporate and marketing activities. Prior to forming Marken Communications in mid-1977, Andy was vice president of Bozell & Jacobs and its predecessor agencies. During his 12 years with these agencies, he developed and coordinated a wide variety of highly visible and successful promotional campaigns and activities for clients. A graduate of Iowa State University, Andy received his Bachelor's Degree with majors in Radio & Television and Journalism. Widely published in the industry and trade press, he is an accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

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, 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. 
  • Intel  Few firms have had a series of strong leaders as has Intel.  Gordon Moore became an industry legend by setting the direction and seeing the future of the semiconductor and computer industries.  He passed the mantle to a very driven, outspoken and astute marketeer, Andy Grove, who made it popular to be paranoid about your business and its survival.  Yes, it was Andy Grove who underestimated the impact of a few postings on the Web regarding problems with the Pentium processor but he quickly learned how to use the Internet to the company’s advantage.  Much less combative and more thoughtful, Craig Barrett has taken the helm and is developing his own image as a strategic technology leader.

  • AT&T  Following the breakup of MaBell, AT&T languished for years inventing great technology but protecting its long-distance goldmine while the best people left to build the data industry.  Mike Armstrong stepped into the bloated and rudderless organization and like Patton instantly took command reshaping and redirecting the company in less than a year.  No one will yet claim that AT&T is a lean, mean fighting machine.  But the charismatic motorcycle-riding grandfather has moved the 3-minute phone call company into the mainstream of the Internet infrastructure marketplace.  When he stands before a crowd and says AT&T will be the leader in voice, video and data convergence for the home and business…you take it as fact.
  • IBM  Hundreds if not thousands of people in the industry thought IBM’s board had lost its collective mind when Lou Gerstner was plucked from American Express to head the bleeding dinosaur.  The competition was relieved the credit card guy had taken on the job of burying Big Blue.  Rather than planning the wake; the tough, fast learner put the dinosaur on a rigid diet and forced it to adapt to its new surroundings.  Today, he walks the walk and talks the talk of the Internet and when he says his is the leading Internet service provider company…Wall Street and companies large and small take note.

  • Oracle  People describe Larry Ellison with words like iconoclast, visionary, chameleon and survivor.  But the street-wise head of the world’s leading data base software company has strong images of tomorrow and equally strong statements regarding his competitors.  Whether he is flying his French fighter jet, sailing in a race or promoting his idea of tomorrow’s television service; he makes it clear to the press, competition and organization that success is with his and his company’s grasp.  You don’t always believe him but you’re just as certain nothing will stand in his way.

  • HP  The change that has taken place since Carly Florina took over the revered instrumentation and computer company is phenomenal.  After being seduced away from Lucent  the AT&T lodestone that became a global success when it set out on its own  she has been one of the most vocal and visible spokespersons for ecommerce.  Her directions, words and actions have put a burning fire in the guts of employees.  A cheerleader and coach she has made people believe  inside and outside the company  that the company will be a global commerce leader in the 21st century.

  • Amazon  Every dotcom entrepreneur wants to be like Jeff Bezos when they grow up.  His click and order company first took on traditional brick and mortar bookstores and despite a phenomenal IPO few people felt it would survive when Barnes and Noble set its sites on the on-line upstart.  Bezos, despite the fact that his company continues to show red on its bottom line, has expanded the company into on-line CD sales, auctions and other business ventures turning it into what could be called a virtual everyman’s shopping mall.  He’s got lots of detractors inside and outside the industry as well as on Wall Street.  But he makes himself very available to the media and is always ready to answer the easy, hard and antagonistic question

  • Sun Micro and Cisco Systems  Even though you can’t group the two firms in the same category Scott McNeally and John Chambers are very similar.  McNeally aggressively promoted one common theme and direction for Sun  the network is the computer.  Recently he and his team have shifted the company’s focus to the Internet and proclaim that they put the dot in dotcom.  Chambers for years quietly promoted Cisco as the network infrastructure company.  He made an easy transition to the Internet infrastructure company and most recently the spokesman for enabling e-commerce.  Both men are strong-willed and even tempered.  They are also very adamant in their beliefs and aggressively protect their company’s image and direction.  Deeply involved in running their organizations, they also realize that one of their primary jobs is also to be the primary spokesperson for their companies  inside and outside the firms.

  • Chrysler  As a change of pace, recall the PR activities Lee Iacocca carried out when he left his Mustang behind and took on the task of reviving and revitalizing Chrysler…the company and the brand.  Despite his many years at Ford, he became Chrysler to Congress, the battle-weary employees, the media and car buyers around the world.  While he earned millions in stock options, he set a new standard for CEOs who took over troubled companies  including Steve Jobs at Apple  of an annual salary of $l.  Iacocca accepted the role of Chrysler spokesperson and quickly became the most visible company president in the automotive industry.

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

Other Articles by Andy Marken

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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