PR TECHNIQUE: Speaking terms: Picking a CEO's platform

When it comes to CEO speaking opportunities, it's not just what's said; it's how it's said, what's said afterwards, and who's listening.

When it comes to CEO speaking opportunities, it's not just what's said; it's how it's said, what's said afterwards, and who's listening.

Anyone savvy and experienced enough to earn the CEO title likely has good stories to tell. The PR challenge lies in finding the right venues for the right stories. Booking CEOs for top-tier speaking engagements can be a long and fiercely competitive process. Conference planners often schedule speakers six to 18 months in advance, and building relationships with them is vital. CEO speaking programs do not differ much from media-relations campaigns, experts say. Success depends on what, how, and who you pitch, and forum planners want the same things reporters want. Like an editor weary of calls from PR pros who haven't read the targeted magazine, Inna Suvorov recommends visiting her club's website before dialing. "It helps to know something about the organization, and sources of information are readily available," says Suvorov, director of programs and external affairs for the Executives Club of Chicago. A good media relations campaign - or CEO speaking program - focuses on the message at least as much as the messenger. Placing speakers in elite forums often means submitting detailed information packets. "Just like when you pitch The Wall Street Journal, it has to say something interesting, insightful, and different," says Billee Howard, Weber Shandwick's corporate and executive positioning practice EVP. Speeches shouldn't be recycled, and like any news release, shouldn't be too commercial. "Never send a company rep in front of an audience with a sales pitch," says Chris Coleman, CMO for SecureWorks, an internet security company in Atlanta. CEO speeches should target high-level audiences made up of other C-suite executives, industry leaders, and big customers. Such forums give CEOs the chance to outline business trends and company visions. If technical or product-level pros will fill the chairs, Howard advises sending lower-level executives instead. Southwest Airlines has an advantage since its chairman, president, and CEO are three different people, each interested in different topics. In June 2001, two of Herb Kelleher's three job titles went to other executives - CEO Jim Parker and president/ COO Colleen Barrett. "Jim skews towards financial," says PR director Linda Rutherford. "Colleen speaks very effectively about corporate culture and customer service. Both have strengths." September 11, however, delayed Southwest's development of a speech communications program for the new leadership team until this year. Andy Lark, Sun Microsystems' global communications and marketing VP, says the first step is building speaking platforms for CEOs. He suggests positioning them as experts on topics vital to business. Examples include Sun CEO Scott McNealy's eloquence on network computing, and Michael Dell's authoritative take on the direct business model. Getting leaders quoted frequently about their pet topics can help put them behind prestigious podiums, notes Andy Tannen, executive forums director for MS&L. Media relations and speeches are, after all, symbiotic. Inviting select reporters to attend a CEO's talk contributes to what Lark calls "echo" - extending the speech's reach by incorporating it into press releases, posting it on company websites, or revising it into a white paper. Important clients may also be in the crowd, and PR staffers should make sure the CEO shakes all the right hands, adds Carol Ballock, MD of Burson-Marsteller's corporate and financial practice. "So much goes into that one speech," says Harvey Greisman, communications VP for IBM Global Services. "If you don't get more out of it than that, it's almost not worth the effort." Coleman and her agency partner, Acorn PR proprietor Marilyn Mobley, work to get SecureWorks' CEO on the agendas of professional and trade association seminars in the company's four target markets - banking, credit unions, healthcare, and utilities. "Association staffs are much like a small paper," says Mobley. Although associations may produce member newsletters, their resources are limited. Editors, therefore, will often welcome keynote speeches transcribed by PR reps. Mobley also frequently passes out evaluation forms to attendees. Not only do association staffs appreciate the effort, positive results can help in pitching CEOs to the next forum planner. New CEOs or those heading smaller companies may have to work their way up to big-name venues by their marks in less-prestigious forums, Lark notes. "The goal of speaking is to generate awareness of a company, to communicate the vision, mission, and what the core differentiators are," adds Howard. "The lesser-known CEOs must take more risks in putting themselves out there to get exposure." Risks can be mitigated, however, by thorough research. "These forums are getting very good at doing their own PR," Greisman points out. "In their marketing brochures, they try to persuade you that they have got every valuable opinion leader under the sun attending." Experts advise checking out events before booking engagements by reading speeches from previous conferences, reviewing attendee lists, and talking to past participants. Communicators at Allstate Insurance are so discriminating they won't schedule their CEO to speak at a conference one of them hasn't attended. "CEOs don't prefer surprises," says corporate relations manager Chuck Kaiser. Conference listing and evaluation sources recommended by PR pros familiar with speech planning include Catchpole (www.catchpole.com), Best Practices in Corporate Communications (www.bpincc.com), and Burson's CEOGO.com. In some cases, such sites provide detailed information only to members or subscribers. The recession brings its own challenges in identifying appropriate speaking opportunities. "With this tough economic environment, CEOs need to be careful if it turns out every single conference you're speaking at is at a four-day golf event in Pebble Beach, CA," Ballock says. But since the dot-com bust, substance-over-style CEOs are in greater demand, opines Peter Debreceny, Allstate's corporate relations VP. "Many CEOs that believed in substance were very concerned during the tech bubble about the rise of the 'celebrity CEO' and deliberately took low profiles," he says, lamenting execs who may have used speeches to inflate stock prices. "The days of the celebrity CEO in that context are gone, and the survivors almost by definition have a level of substance." ----- Technique tips Do use internal presentations to warm up your CEO for outside speaking opportunities Do remember that conference participants pay to hear your CEO's speech and want to be entertained Do choose forums based on which audiences the company needs to reach Don't approach a high-profile speech as if it were a sales presentation Don't schedule your CEO to speak at a forum without checking it out thoroughly Don't spend weeks crafting a speech without stretching its reach through white papers, op-eds, and media interviews

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