Maverick spokespeople - a blessing or a curse?

The news that Jeremy Clarkson has finally managed to get himself suspended by the BBC might not come as a major shock to many.

Jeremy Clarkson: Will we miss him?
Jeremy Clarkson: Will we miss him?
And in an age where business news is front-page news and CEOs are legitimate targets for media and politicians, are the days of the Michael O’Learys and Sir Stuart Roses numbered?

Clarkson’s bombastic, media-friendly approach as a frontman has undoubtedly been central to Top Gear’s commercial success, "selling DVDs and magazine by the tonne" and making the BBC money in markets across the globe. 

But with the media’s knives out for some time, the BBC may have finally reached the point of thinking the reputational damage Clarkson causes outweighs his ratings draw and commercial impact.

So far, so light-entertainment.  But the larger-than-life leader has long been a staple of the business world too. 

Maverick CEOs like Ryanair’s O’Leary, his long-time rival, easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou and Sir-now-Lord Alan Sugar (who became more famous than the Amstrad brand he founded) often seemed to drive their companies’ value up by sheer force of personality, keeping the positive coverage rolling in for their brands.

And retail leaders like Sir Stuart Rose at Marks and Spencer, Sir Terry Leahy at Tesco and Justin King at Sainsbury’s could make themselves the story – either to keep the heat off their businesses in bad times, or to lead the market in the good times.

While Sir Philip Green might still be able to occasionally work the magic for Arcadia – whether growing Topman or (potentially) flogging BHS – more businesses seem to be favouring safer pairs of hands. 

You might blame an increasingly aggressive media environment, where the lines between business and consumer news have blurred.

Since the Great Crash of 2008, business news has become front-page news, and Fred Goodwin was one of many CEOs to find out that the public did care who he was when the media chased him out of the country. 

You might blame restless shareholders and trigger-happy chairmen and chairwomen.  

Having seen Bob Diamond become the story at Barclays, HSBC investors could be forgiven for wondering how long they can hold on to Stuart Gulliver when he himself is admitting to damaging the bank’s reputation. 

Or you might blame us in the comms industry.  Perhaps rigid corporate messaging and strategic comms plans have crowded out the inspirational leaders. 

Maybe obsessive media training and PRs protecting CEOs from the hard questions has created a safety-first culture where our business leaders fear the one bad headline more than they crave the platforms to shape and lead their markets. 

Even O’Leary toned down the rhetoric so that Ryanair can shake off its no-frills/no-prisoners approach, so maybe we’ve gone too far?

When consumer trust in business has collapsed, we still need our share of outspoken, brave and bold business leaders. 

You don’t need to be a Clarkson, but Steve Jobs was uncompromising and brash, and was adored for it. And Apple remains one of the world’s most trusted and most valuable brands. 

There are few rewards without risk. So let’s work harder to enable our business leaders to lead, rather than tying them down for fear of the one slip.  

Those brave enough, and effective enough, will shape their markets – and will reward us PRs for helping them to do so.

Tom Wadsworth is the associate director at MHP 

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