During my first consulting gig many years ago, I worked with a CEO who thought having protocols for engaging with reporters was a ridiculous form of overkill, and one of the reasons his company did not get great coverage.
His solution was to make himself more available. Despite protestations from his communications team, he gave his contact details to reporters, responded to their emails, and had cozy chats with almost anyone who called him. For a while, he thought his "open door" approach was working well. The only thing missing was glowing coverage, but his view was that was just a matter of time.
Then the inevitable happened; the company had a problem. Suddenly, being on reporters’ speed dial was a nightmare. There was a big spike in his emails and he quickly flipped from being an approachable, media-friendly man of the people, to a besieged senior executive who needed to focus on his day job and definitely didn’t want to talk to reporters.
After changing his cell phone number and forwarding all reporter emails to the head of communications, some form of order was restored. But dealing with the problem facing the company was made much more difficult.
Reporters who thought they had developed a special relationship with the CEO reacted badly when their calls and emails were answered by members of the communications team, rather than the boss. However, outside counsel was adamant that inquiries be handled by a spokesperson for the firm and not its chief executive.
Over time, relationships with reporters and editors who followed the company were restored, and an agreement was reached about how interaction with the CEO and other senior executives should be conducted. Needless to say, the reporters understood exactly why the company had imposed new rules of engagement, and most were perfectly happy to operate in an environment that allowed them to perform their jobs effectively.
If reporters are given unfettered access to a CEO, they are not likely to complain. But, for the clear majority of companies, allowing direct access to the person running the place is not considered a good idea and can cause real problems, particularly if the CEO misspeaks or there is a crisis.
As the CEO, being too available is as bad as being unreachable. Finding the right balance requires the CEO to understand the importance of media engagement and have excellent professional communicators to give advice and manage the process. Overconfidence can lead to serious errors of judgment.
Lucas van Praag is former global head of corporate communications at Goldman Sachs, now managing partner at Fitzroy Communications,