CEOs make or break communications

There was much surprise amongst WPP shareholders yesterday when the board recommended that CEO Martin Sorrell should receive a pay rise of up to 50% plus increased bonuses.

There was much surprise amongst WPP shareholders yesterday when the board recommended that CEO Martin Sorrell should receive a pay rise of up to 50% plus increased bonuses.

Executive pay is always a very sensitive subject, especially in these tough macroeconomic times. (And to be fair, poor old Sir Martin hasn't had a pay rise since 2007.)

But recent evidence once again shows that being a CEO can be a pretty nerve-wracking job. HP's Leo Apotheker is the latest high-profile leader to be ousted without his knowledge after an internal coup.

Anyone who saw the August 15 front-cover story about Pfizer in Fortune magazine would have read an incredible tale of backstabbing, incompetence, and machinations behind the scenes that led to the removal of CEO Jeff Kindler. The well-researched and beautifully written piece starts with Kindler being summoned to an obscure airport conference room on a Sunday to basically plead for his job – unsuccessfully as it turned out - in front of three board members.

And Yahoo's latest CEO Carol Bartz was unceremoniously dumped over the telephone, though bearing in mind her tendency towards loud sweary outbursts, perhaps noone on the board had the bottle to confront her face to face.

For communicators, the CEO is a vital piece in the corporate jigsaw, often the most vital, depending on their style of doing business. CEOs are often brands in their own right, and brands indelibly associated with the companies they lead. If the CEO fouls up, the company suffers big time. If the CEO plays it right, the company prospers.

A lot of Pfizer's drama was played out behind the scenes. And it's quite possible Yahoo is a basket case that can't be fixed by anyone. But HP is number 11 on the Fortune 100 list. Its revenues amount to more than $126 billion. Its problems, once again after last year's Mark Hurd soap opera, were closely intertwined with communications.

In January, I wrote that Apotheker “no doubt hopes [CCO Bill] Wohl will be a safe pair of hands and that the rest of 2011 is less tempestuous on the news headline front than the last 12 months.”

Clearly Apotheker's strategy to migrate the company to a more software-focused operation neither convinced investors nor internal stakeholders, which led to communications confusion that Wohl was in no position to control.

If your CEO is on tilt, no amount of comms smarts are going to turn the story around. That's one of the side effects of PR having its seat at the top table. The function lives and dies by the decisions made at that table.

Is new HP CEO Meg Whitman the person to stabilize the operation? Not sure myself.

Maybe HP should have considered appointing a CCO as its next CEO – it sure as hell needs a more tranquil 12 months ahead on the storytelling front.

And perhaps the successful CEOs do deserve those big pay packets after all.

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