MARKET FOCUS: Shoulder to shoulder

Some CEOs consider their communications counsel a vital part of management. Andrew Gordon reports

Some CEOs consider their communications counsel a vital part of management. Andrew Gordon reports

C-level access is something all PR teams crave, and many indeed earn it. But a large number find themselves reporting to marketing, human resources, or the legal department. Some CEOs, however, recognize the power of having a communications person at their right hand and understand the potency of PR as going far beyond a press release. These executives are aware of the inherent strategic value of PR, particularly when it helps develop strategy and vision, and doesn't just communicate it. Here are five companies in which the CEOs not only understand PR, they embrace it. AARP It's not surprising that AARP CEO Bill Novelli understands the value of PR. Novelli has been immersed in PR and communications for much of his professional career, not least as president and cofounder of Porter Novelli. During his time at PN, Novelli says, he worked with numerous CEOs and saw their varying styles and models of working with communications teams, some closely tied to the CEO and others not so much. "I've always felt that you ought to have communications reporting to the CEO," says Novelli. "Communications people are your conduit to the media, and there is no more important channel than that." And should a crisis arise, PR people need to be in the loop. Nothing is worse than calling in your communications team and telling them about a crisis they know nothing about, says Novelli. AARP's embrace of PR goes beyond Novelli, says Lisa Davis, director of communications. The entire board recognizes communications' importance in advancing goals. And because AARP's leadership embraces PR, that sets the tone for the rest of the organization. "When you have the CEO's support, you have support across the entire organization," says Davis. "You have a better seat at the table. So our focus isn't on how can we get more access. It's on how can we do more." Novelli doesn't fault other CEOs if they are not more focused on communications, particularly because they tend to be so busy and financially focused. But as so much of an organization's image is tied to the CEO, having a close relationship with the PR team better enables the team to take advantage of that, to both the CEO's and the company's benefit, he says. "PR people need to be well versed beyond communications," says Novelli. "To be of real value to the CEO, they have to know what is going on beyond their area, with a strong orientation on results. A CEO is responsible for a lot of things, and one thing is the image and reputation of the organization. Communications people are key to that." Bear Creek For CEO Bill Williams, having the eyes and ears of the communications team close at hand prevents the company from being too insular. "All management teams tend to look inward at some point," says Williams, CEO of Bear Creek, the Medford, OR-based parent of gourmet-food company Harry & David and gardening company Jackson & Perkins. "You need someone whose sole focus is to look outside and doesn't waver so we are better balanced. You want critical, unfiltered feedback at a senior level." That someone is Bill Ihle, SVP of corporate relations, who asserts that the communications team is integral to articulating the vision of the company and helping to define its culture. And for the head of communications to be able to present an unfiltered picture of the company from numerous audiences, he or she must have unfettered access to the CEO, insists Ihle. Williams says the essence of marketing is purely financial. Communications and PR delve deeper than that; PR plays a deeper strategic role and represents the firm to any number of audiences, from the media to the government to customers. "If you consider PR just part of marketing, something that is just financial, then you really risk limiting yourself," explains Williams. "You lose the qualitative part. You don't want to be looking at it from just a quantitative point of view. "We do some mass advertising, but it's limited," he adds, "frankly because we have a terrific PR department." JetBlue Airways CEO David Neeleman knows firsthand how important PR can be in getting a new company off the ground. A year before the low-cost, award-winning airline took off on its first flight in February 2000, Neeleman knew people wouldn't buy tickets for an airline they had never heard of. "That gave us a year to make sure we were known," says Gareth Edmondson-Jones, VP of corporate communications. "It was an opportunity to build our credibility, and PR was essential for that. The efficiencies of PR can run circles around even a limited ad budget." Not only did JetBlue use PR to differentiate itself, but PR helped it become something that is almost unheard of in the airline industry: profitable. Even with the recent news that the airline's profit had fallen by 71%, press reports note it is still one of the few profitable airlines out there. "We're in an industry, for better or worse, that gets way more publicity, positive and negative, than it deserves," says Neeleman. "So there's a risk in doing anything. PR helps spread the word for a much lower cost. So during times when I'm up at 3:30 in the morning doing satellite broadcasts, I understand it helps the company immeasurably." Edmondson-Jones credits Neeleman with embracing PR and the company's brand principals so completely. Having Neeleman be visible during that first year was critical to establishing the company's credibility and brand. "His name attracts attention, and he sees the value of PR," says Edmondson-Jones. "He understands media. He understands news. He is a partner in all of this, and he'll tackle anything." Kaiser Permanente A few years ago, CEO George Halvorson realized all was not well with the image of Oakland, CA-based healthcare organization Kaiser Permanente. "We have one of the best name brands in healthcare," says Halvorson, "but there was a real lack of clarity of what the brand meant. We needed to use all the tools available to define our brand, including PR." Halvorson credits Bernard Tyson, SVP for brand strategy and management, for fine-tuning the brand. And Tyson credits Halvorson primarily for understanding and embracing the importance of communications. "It's a hand-in-glove relationship," says Tyson. "I feel that I am his strategic partner. He has a great understanding of communications and marketing." What makes Tyson so valued is his understanding of how external perceptions influence internal perceptions and vice versa. Tyson has an appreciation of how positioning an organization in the minds of the public is just as important as positioning it in the minds of employees, says Halvorson. "The employees can perceive the company based on the information you give them," adds Halvorson. "But they also base it on what the external world tells them. That was very important to the branding we did." Halvorson knows that PR is equally adept at moving hearts and minds. "Communications makes my job much easier," adds Halvorson, "when it helps an organization achieve a clear sense of identity and direction." US Cellular As CEO and president of cell-phone company US Cellular, John Rooney has a vested interest in clear communications. So his relationship with the Chicago-based company's communications team is "crystal clear," says John Simley, director of media relations. "When you don't have direct access to the CEO, your answer can get translated through so many filters that the CEO's question is never answered," says Simley. "I can walk 40 feet to John's office, ask a question, and he gives me the answer." With so many different audiences and customer segments to communicate with, Rooney says PR is invaluable in helping him craft messages and communicate them to the right audiences. Whatever firms Rooney has run in his career, the first order of business was always to communicate his vision to all constituents, he says. And he has always relied on a tight relationship with communications to make that happen. "Part of my job is to relate to audiences, internal and external," says Rooney. "The people are my customers, whether it's everybody in Chicago or Iowa. They're all important to me. They are people I want to use our services. So it's important to communicate to them and give them straight talk about what the company stands for in a way that is something other than just advertising. To have someone between people and me doesn't make any sense at all." Simley is grateful for Rooney's insistence that communications report to him because Simley has worked in companies where PR reported to marketing, human resources, even the legal department. But there is no substitute for a direct and open dialogue with the CEO. "Our messages are communicated much more clearly, and our reaction time is much quicker because of the relationship we have," says Simley. "So we're far more effective and efficient at what we do."

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