Increased call for transparency intensifies spotlight on CEOs

Since the passing of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, many recount his legacy as an innovator and creative thinker.

Since the passing of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, many recount his legacy as an innovator and creative thinker. Communicators believe he had something else down, too - availability, as well as the know-how to tell an intriguing story.

"How often was Jobs in the news because the wrong thing was out there?" asks Susan Butenhoff, CEO of Access Communications, a Ketchum-owned agency that specializes in technology. "The reason is because he and his team recognized earlier on what it took to tell a good story and how to prep for it carefully so that he did not have these issues that are becoming the black eye of other CEOs in the market."

Need for training
With the rise of digital media and the increasing demand for transparency, CEO media training has become more vital. The role of the CEO has changed dramatically over the last two decades, notes Butenhoff, who has media trained a number of high-profile executives from a young Steve Jobs to Sheryl Sandberg, former Google VP of global online sales and operations, and now Facebook's COO.

"I feel sorry for CEOs because the stakes are higher," she says. "The exposure is higher. Twenty-five years ago, CEOs could just stick to a prescribed road map of messaging. The fact is that world is not about messaging anymore. It's about stories and narratives. As a result, CEOs tend to overstep the safe zone of what they should talk about and how they should be doing it in these spontaneous ways."

Leading Lessons

Access Communications CEO Susan Butenhoff has three key tips for CEOs:

1. Education on the media landscape's shift.
"In the past, all CEOs were given key messages, proof points, and the position to be an imperial deliverer of messages. We've moved from imperial to intimate. Spontaneous genius is a very rare commodity."

2. Develop stories around the messages.
"Fewer journalists are covering more territory, so they are not as intimate, nor do they have the headroom and bandwidth to develop these stories on their own."

3. No solid walls exist in terms of what is said and where it goes.
"Everything is instantly broadcast via tweets. You must align better the CEO's goals with the content that will be amplified via other media channels."

Over the last several months, former Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz took her level of authenticity way beyond what's considered professional. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings also made major announcements about subscription price increases and then quickly disappeared as customer backlash heated up.

"It comes across as arrogant," comments Butenhoff on Netflix. "You need to go through the process of saying, if you're going to communicate your logic, what is the cycle beyond that initial splash? How are you going to actually communicate and stay in touch with the market when you're dealing with the ripple? In Netflix's case, the ripple was multiple tsunamis."

At Motorola Solutions, the provider of mission-critical communications for government and enterprise customers that spun off its consumer (or mobile phone) unit in January, trust is a key element to the relationship between CEO Greg Brown and Nick Sweers, VP of global communications.

"The trust is mutually shared," says Sweers. "Brown is extremely approachable, so I can say to him, 'I don't want you to go in this direction, I prefer you take this direction' or 'Don't go down this path.'

"From a PR perspective," he adds, "Brown understands staying in the center lane and not going off to the left or right."

This past October, following the release of Motorola Solutions' Q3 results, Brown was interviewed by Maria Bartiromo on CNBC. Preparation for the appearance, Sweers recalls, included a briefing with the CEO on what the interview would be about, what the message points were, and what was the desired outcome.

News travels fast
In addition to messaging, Paul Gennaro, SVP of corporate communications and CCO of AECOM, says the other challenge is the increased speed at which news travels. AECOM is a technical and management support services company headed by CEO John Dionisio.

"There seems to be a growing trend of 'bolt-on' elements to media interviews - things outside of the scope of the original request," notes Gennaro. "In these cases, my CEO's authentic style comes across well and credibly, regardless of the topic."

Selectivity of media interviews is also crucial to protect a company's corporate reputation, adds Gennaro.

"From a reputation standpoint, we evaluate every request for a CEO media interview based on risk and reward," he explains. "There needs to be a clear benefit to commit an investment of the CEO's time. We are selective. We actually pass on many more opportunities than we participate in."

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