Finding the right corporate voice

When Vodafone announced losses of £14.9bn at the end of May, its CEO Arun Sarin was the man splashed all over the news and business pages of the national dailies. The Financial Times referred to him as a boss 'under fire' while the Daily Telegraph described him as 'embattled'.

Yet what neither of these reports did was quote any of the other senior management team. This is despite journalists regularly calling for a greater choice of personnel to approach (see right). Beyond the boss, they want
access to the whole senior management team – be it the finance director, the marketing director or their equivalents.

High-profile management
So, should in-house PR practitioners make more use of other board directors to avoid over exposing the chief executive? And which companies are already doing this?

PRWeek, in association with Factiva Insight, compared the number of UK press mentions given to CEOs, FDs and marketing directors in the six months leading up to the Vodafone announcement (30 May). Only the top 20 FTSE companies were measured.

The data (see PRWeek.com/uk) reveals big differences in companies' choice of spokesperson. Some firms predominantly used their CEO, while others were as likely to put forward their FD. Some also had a deliberate policy to use – or indeed rest – certain spokespeople, depending on the story. PRWeek asked six of the FTSE 20 to explain their spokesperson strategy. PRWeek also approached journalists, who gave their verdict on the policies.

Here, we focus on Unilever, GlaxoSmithKline, Tesco, Vodafone, Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays.

With some of the FTSE 20, the dominance of the CEO compared with, say, the financial director, is marked. Unilever FD Rudy Markham only appeared in the press four times in the six months to 30 May, compared with 101 quotes by his CEO, Patrick Cescau. Similarly, the 106 press appearances by GlaxoSmithKline CEO Jean-Pierre Garnier dwarf the two made by his FD, Julian Heslop.

Unilever says it carefully selects which personnel to use as spokespeople. Head of UK media relations Trevor Gorin says Cescau was purposely promoted as the company sought to introduce the group's chief executive (who has only been in his post for one year) to the City. Although Markham is always present at press conferences on results day, he tends to be offered up for interviews with specialist financial media, such as Financial Director magazine. While Markham might appear in the Lex column of the Financial Times, Cescau is more likely to find himself in that paper's main news sections. ‘We develop a programme of media activity for each of our senior people, including speaking engagements,'
Gorin explains.

Pros: A spokesperson for GSK maintains that having Garnier as the public face of the company works well. One of his most recent profiles was in The Observer (30 April): ‘We adopted a deliberate policy a few years ago of building up Garnier's profile. We're lucky that he's a fantastic ambassador for GSK. Journalists that meet him like him, and this generally gets reflected in the coverage.'

Cons: ‘There is a danger of promoting the CEO too much,' says Jo Thethi, PR manager at Barclays, whose CEO John Varley often makes way for marketing director Jim Hytner (see right). ‘If CEOs become too linked with the company in the eyes of investors and other stakeholders, this is a risk. Are PROs trying to change this? That depends on whether their company can cope with having two strong personalities visible at the top.'

At Tesco, all board directors are promoted equally – they are offered for interview according to the nature of the story. ‘Our board members all have broad responsibilities, so we prefer to use whoever is most relevant to the subject in hand,' says head of press Jonathan Church. ‘FD Andrew Higginson speaks on finance, strategy and retailing services, while marketing director Tim Mason (who has now moved to the US) handles retailing services as well as marketing and property. CEO Sir Terry Leahy obviously has the overview, and tends to lead our financial results.'

A similar policy is followed by Vodafone. Although CEO Arun Sarin was mentioned more than any other chief executive of the FTSE top 20 (327 times in March alone, as rumours emerged of a rift with chairman Lord McLaurin), others get a look-in. Vodafone's financial director (Andy Halford) and marketing director (Frank Rovekkamp) were also quoted frequently in the six months to 30 May.

Ben Padovan, the mobile phone firm's deputy head of media relations, says: ‘We always seek to match the interview request with the most appropriate person. Sarin has only given around four direct interviews each month because we want to avoid overexposure.' Four a month might sound like a lot, but consider the fact that the press team receives up to 40 interview requests with Sarin each week.

Pros: Fiona Walsh, City reporter at The Guardian, says: ‘Chief executives are always brought out on results day but quite often I will never get through to them at any other time. It's almost impossible to establish a relationship with them. It's much better dealing with someone for whom it would be too embarrassing not to take my call.'

Cons: Carol Lewis, Career editor at The Times, criticises PROs for making it hard to access management. ‘I never have a problem getting hold of the CEO because PROs assume you want to speak to the head honcho. But it seems like it's still too much of a problem for them to offer someone else.'

Royal Bank of Scotland's strategy for fronting its management team has been to specifically push financial director Guy Whittaker. He garnered half as many press mentions as CEO Fred Goodwin after the company  announced its annual results in December. Mike Keohane, head of group media relations at RBS (and with four press mentions to 30 May), says: ‘Skill with the media doesn't ascend with seniority. The challenge is persuading journalists that another director is more relevant. Perhaps a company that is struggling financially would benefit from having a media-savvy FD to put its case in detail – the CEO will always be shot down.' And do not forget marketing directors. Factiva's results show these individuals rarely get quoted in the press, but Barclays marketing director Jim Hytner was the second-most mentioned head of marketing (with 38 appearances in the six months to June).

Hytner is a former marketing director of ITV and Five, and is especially media-friendly. He regularly shares the stage with chief executive John Varley on results day. Barclays PR manager Jo Thethi says Hytner was quoted so much during the period because he is able to speak authoritatively on a range of issues. ‘He was quoted a lot in February and March because we were rebranding a lot of our branches,' she adds. ‘This had more cut-through than would have been achieved via our CEO.'

Pros: ‘Press officers think they should only field the most senior directors, but their availability makes that difficult. I would much prefer having better access to someone more junior but who could talk things through with me,' says the City editor of one newspaper.

Cons: ‘It's best to front the CEO and FD/CMO together – both for coherence in the story and to get the specialist viewpoints of each,' argues Roger Blitz, leisure industry correspondent at the Financial Times.

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