Getting the top person out in front

A CEO needs to be visible, but a picture of him or her doing the grip and grin simply won't cut it in today's more discerning media.

A CEO needs to be visible, but a picture of him or her doing the grip and grin simply won't cut it in today's more discerning media.

As a CEO, Pete Slosberg isn't shy about wandering supermarket aisles or the grounds of wine festivals in search of people to taste his latest enterprise and to pose for photos.

The "Pete" behind Pete's Wicked Ale, and now his latest venture - Cocoa Pete's Chocolate Adventures - knows how important it is for a small-business entrepreneur like himself to be seen, pointing to Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Mrs. Field's cookies as products that benefited from having highly visible CEOs.

"We can't just put our name on the label and then throw it out there," stresses Slosberg. "It will just fall flat. Buzz is everything. So we want to be where our customers are.

"We've had great success at beer and wine festivals," adds Slosberg. "It's more memorable if we're there in person. Consumers will usually get behind you if they see there is a real person behind the product and that there is a story behind it."

But Slosberg doesn't attend every event that comes his way. He picks and chooses events and photo opportunities carefully to find those that will not only help build buzz, but also help sell more chocolate.

And that is the key difference these days when it comes to CEO visibility opportunities: business value. Just a few years ago, CEOs would embrace photo opportunities for the sake of photo opportunities. Now the pendulum has completely swung to the other side, and PR teams are advising CEOs to only engage in activities that bring about some business value.

"CEOs were quite overly opportunistic and self-aggrandizing just a few years ago," says Billee Howard, EVP and national director of financial media at Weber Shandwick. "But because of things such as Sarbanes-Oxley, we've seen a real reversal. CEOs are taking a more subdued and professional posture."

CEOs still need to be visible when they are talking about a new product or talking to investors. But gratuitous photo opportunities have mostly fallen by the wayside in favor of opportunities that position CEOs as thought leaders - from media interviews to speaking at financial or analyst conferences - and are done for the benefit of the company, not the individual, adds Howard.

CEOs have become a bit more camera shy. So as CEOs have become pickier, so have their PR teams, who handle such requests.

"It's not just about one spot on CNN," says Howard. "It's about making the CEO be seen as an industry leader and developing a thought leadership position for the company. You don't want to be overexposed, but you don't want to be underexposed. So you have to pick and choose wisely."

Helen Dowler, director of photo services at PR Newswire, lists several photo opportunities that take into account business strategy and the company's business goals without seeming frivolous or gratuitous - speaking at an industry conference, signing agreements, introducing or demonstrating a new product, touring a plant or facility, attending bell-ringing ceremonies on Wall Street, visiting office locations, and participating in philanthropic events.

CEOs must be presented as business and thought leaders, regardless of the opportunity, advises Ed Trissel, principal of the Vistance Group. Any such opportunities must be linked to business objectives and should be geared to resonate with a particular audience, whether it's the financial community or the company's own employees.

"The days of one-off opportunities have gone by the wayside," says Trissel. "You have to look at the bigger picture and how does it link to the company's business goals."

Leslie Gaines-Ross, Burson-Marsteller's chief knowledge and research officer, says there was almost a visibility blackout for a year after 2002. But over the past six to nine months, CEOs are starting to come out of hiding with a greater emphasis on what is the ROI on being visible.

That doesn't mean photo opportunities have completely gone the way of the dodo. But they will be far less gratuitous than they used to be. Photos of CEOs jumping out of planes or celebrating at a company party are history.

Because of companies like Enron and Tyco, it's important for CEOs to get out of the boardroom and be seen as regular people, advises Jim Sulley, a director at photo production and distribution company NewsCast in the US. He calls images of CEOs speaking behind a podium "boring" and says they won't help the company get much attention.

"If your company makes widgets, get the CEO with his sleeves rolled up on the assembly lines," advises Sulley. What is good for the CEO is good for the company, he adds, explaining that if people like the CEO, they tend to like the company. So photos that depict the CEO as a regular person and involved with the company, from working with employees to philanthropic activities, only stand to benefit the CEO and the company.

Providian Financial is an example of a company that hasn't shied away from making its CEO visible. But like many other companies, there has been a shift from brand equity to business value, and there has to be an obvious business justification before approaching the CEO.

"We've pretty much taken a bottom-line mentality," explains Alan Elias, corporate communications SVP at Providian. "CEOs are nervous because of Reg FD and Sarbanes-Oxley. They are more nervous about being out there. So we've become very selective in terms of what we present to the CEO. He wants to know what the benefit is because we don't want to over-expose ourselves. The nail that sticks up the most is the first one to get hammered down."

Technique tips

Do consider how the opportunity could impact the company's business objectives and how it aligns with the company's business strategy

Do make sure the CEO has something to say

Do make sure opportunities are selected based on quality, not quantity

Don't use a cookie-cutter approach. Each event has its own pros and cons

Don't force opportunities to fit into the company's business strategy

Don't present an opportunity to a CEO without making sure it is an appropriate fit for him or her and what the company stands to gain

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