FEATURE: Is your CEO too afraid to broadcast?

Unlike 'celebrity CEOs' such as Sir Alan Sugar, few bosses are prepared to regularly appear on-air. Peter Crush asked some specialists why this is.

Be honest, in-house people. How many times have you made your CEO, or a member of the board, available for national broadcast interviews this year? How many of those interviews were on subjects other than the ann­ouncement of interim results or year-end statements?

If the collective experience of the panellists at last month’s Electric Airwaves/PRWeek roundtable is anything to go by, the answer to the latter would be ‘not many’. During the debate on PR and broadcasting, Electric Airwaves MD Andrew Caesar-Gordon boldly stated to the rest of the panel – comprising broadcast PROs, former TV presenters and ex-ITV news editor – that ‘PR people fear broadcast media’.

He argued: ‘They shield their CEOs from broadcast for fear of something going wrong. CEOs are very worried about broadcast.’

It was an opening remark with which no one disagreed.

The ‘template PR’ problem
Caesar-Gordon’s statement was a pessimistic start to a debate on how PROs should seek to widen their broadcast opportunities. But it summed up the general feeling among the panellists – that many PR professionals have yet to get to grips with the broadcast arena.

According to the debaters, some PR people not only treat broadcasting as a ‘special’ channel (thus perpetuating its mystique) – they also overly rely on traditional print media because they perceive these outlets as requiring less effort.

‘The PR industry is suffering from the problem of template PR,’ argued Howard Kosky, managing director of Markettiers4dc. ‘CEOs have an inbuilt fear that anything they say will have an untoward impact on their share price. This is not helped by PR teams that do not persuade them otherwise.’

He added: ‘Paradoxically, CEOs and PR professionals prefer print. They both have an ongoing relationship with print journalists, so from their point of view they will get a better reception from those journalists. But this could hardly be further from the truth. The fact is that PROs do not have the required relationships to pick up the phone to a broadcaster. Virtually all PR people know the names of key contacts on the national newspapers, but they would struggle with TV.’

Markettiers recently opened a suite at the London Stock Exchange where CEOs can wander in, learn about the major TV broadcasters and get a feel for what they want. But anecdotal evidence suggests CEOs’ PR teams are failing to take advantage of such opportunities. Electric Airwaves prepared a survey for the roundtable event, asking 50 broadcast journalists to reveal their experience of interviewing company board members. Caesar-Gordon said: ‘The strongest res­ponse was the perception that CEOs go on TV because they think the benefit outweighs the potential for something going wrong. But they also felt that CEOs prefer to deal with print media because they think they are more controllable.’

Another panellist was Rentokil Initial head of comms Malcolm Padley, who had presented his CEO, Doug Flynn, to broadcasters the day before the roundtable to announce the company’s annual results. He accepted that both in-house and agency PROs can suffer from lack of inspiration when presenting their top brass to broadcasters. ‘We worked until 11pm the evening before results day going through our press statements for print media. There was an appreciation that to do broadcast properly, we would need even more preparation.’

In the end, Padley did achieve four broadcast slots, including Bloomberg and the BBC, but admitted he only contacted the latter because ‘it was based two minutes around the corner from where our analyst presentation was being held’. He added that he primarily chose Flynn’s broadcast opportunities according to how they fitted in with his schedule, rather than that of the broadcasters.

Padley said one of his frustrations is having to rely on agency support to come up with broadcast ideas – and that these agencies often ‘think of broadcast as a specialism’ with wholly separate requirements to print media.

Media trainer Scott Chisholm, an ex-ITN broadcaster, grilled Padley on his choice of TV channels. ‘What was your perceived audience?’ he asked. ‘We probably didn’t have a clearly targeted choice,’ admitted Padley.

Chisholm seized on this response: ‘CEOs seem to spend an awful lot of time perfecting their print messages, and then they come to TV and think of the same old channels – the financial ones, such as Bloomberg or CNBC – that few people watch.’

He added: ‘Only the other week I worked with a client who chose to take ITV off his schedule. I advised the client that ITV was exactly where their core audience existed.’

Kosky then claimed that in 15 years of working in broadcast, he has never had a financial client ask him if they could appear on Classic FM Breakfast news - despite Markettiers4dc regarding it to be one of the best shows on which to make an announcement.

So, which side of the PRO/board relationship is at fault here? Are PR professionals failing to present their CEOs to broadcasters because they cannot create news hooks outside of results time, or are chief executives simply wont to avoid TV appearances, especially on more lifestyle-related – rather than pure business – slots?

The panel decided it was the responsibility of PR teams to give their CEOs more confidence.

‘I have strong views about PROs,’ said Neil Henderson, head of broadcast at The Wrigglesworth Consultancy. Until three months ago he was running the ITN news desk. He explained: ‘Part of the problem is that they don’t watch TV or listen to radio, which means they don’t know what broadcasters want or who their audiences are. All broadcasters actually want is a great story.’

Sian Healey, head of comms and policy at BBC TV Licensing, was more sympathetic to the problems faced by PROs when they try to approach broadcasters. ‘I don’t share your experience, and we have extremely good regional agencies that pitch our stories successfully to broadcasters,’ she said. ‘Even though we’re part of the BBC, we don’t get any special treatment from anyone.’

Wrigglesworth’s Henderson urged PR practitioners to go out and meet broadcasters, and to keep an eye on industry trends. ‘I bet many PROs don’t know that the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News recently hired the former deputy editor of ITV News,’ he said. ‘What this means is that the BBC’s output is starting to become very similar to that of ITV, and this opens up new story ideas to pitch.’

He noted: ‘Anything that’s a “time-bomb” – pensions or housing, for instance – makes for great coverage.’

Chatterbox CEOs
Favoured CEOs – those who the panel praised for their willingness to comment on-air on a wide variety of subjects – included M&S’s Stuart Rose and Arcadia’s Philip Green. On the subject of steering a CEO away from commenting solely on his or her own business issues, Chris Fullerton, head of practice at Ogilvy Broadcast, said: ‘Once chief executives get over being a “non-suit”, talking about issues or commenting on another news story rather than just their own results, they generally like it.’

He added: ‘One of our best clients in this regard is Rolls-Royce chief executive Ian Robertson, who regularly makes himself available.’

And Caesar-Gordon argued: ‘It is the PRO’s job to explain that there are stakeholders beyond the City who are just as worthy. They need to educate directors on all the opportunities that are out there – beyond those for celebrity chief executives such as Sir Alan Sugar.’

He added: ‘Many of the senior CEOs we train who are very comfortable doing an interview for the Financial Times believe they will not get the same exposure on TV. But if they have knowledge of the programme then they have the perfect opportunity, especially in live situations, to say exactly what they want.’

Not appearing on TV can be highly damaging to one’s reputation at a time of crisis. Caesar-Gordon pointed to Bernard Matthews’ lack of initial media presence after bird flu was detected at his turkey farm in Suffolk earlier this year. ‘Every PRO should be sending their CEO this case study on why avoiding broadcast opportunities in unwise,’ he said.

Fullerton added: ‘If your CEO isn’t making his case, someone else will.’

No time to lose
Henderson called on the PR industry to grasp the opportunities presented by broadcast. ‘You have to act now,’ he said. ‘There are 1,500 hours of news a day on terrestrial and digital channels. You have to remember that most stations are reducing staff numbers, and if you can give them something on a plate, and guarantee your CEO will be available, then you will be given an ear.’

Caesar-Gordon highlighted Electric Airwaves’ recent work with an investment bank client as an example of broadcast’s benefits. ‘We persuaded them to set up their own studio and camera at their offices. Since this, their number of interviews has grown from five to 45 a month,’ he said. ‘As a result they are seeing millions of pounds of new business because they are being seen as “experts”.’

Henderson added: ‘A good press release – not one that’s six pages long – will be picked up by all of the TV broadcasters and the commercial and digital radio stations. It’s simple stuff, but it is what PROs need to focus on.

‘At ITV I used to get 245 emails a day. We trimmed them down to ten. I recently pitched a new eco-home to ITV. It got picked up because it’s of the moment, and the company personnel came out talking in hard hats.’

Indeed, the panellists were in agreement that PR practitioners need to focus on the basics.

Kosky opined: ‘Consumers are starting to access their content directly from the web and bypassing TV altogether. CEOs and their PR advisers need to realise they can no longer seek to influence opinion via a limited number of TV
stations.’

Henderson revealed that 10,000 people have signed up to receive podcasts from radio station LBC for £2 a month. And his fellow panellists were excited about the possibilities presented by such content. ‘The digital arena gives CEOs the chance to make their own content, said Henderson. ‘They’re not being interrogated by journalists, they are in control of their own messages. And here’s the best bit – this content will normally be put onto sites unedited.’


On the agenda: panellists agreed that PROs should give their CEO more confidence

The panel cited numerous examples of this process in action. Fullerton explained how client Philips was designing bespoke content for the ‘gadgets for girls’ website Shiny Shiny. Caesar-Gordon, meanwhile, relayed the tale of

beleaguered US airline JetBlue, which turned a crisis into triumph last year: ‘When all of its planes were grounded last December because of bad weather, the company was under intense scrutiny. CEO Dave Neeleman made his own podcast that was hosted untouched on aviation and consumer sites.’ The New York Times reported how Neeleman was ‘mortified’ at the inconvenience caused to his passengers.

Kosky added: ‘We are going to try and measure the trust given to brands on online versus traditional outlets. This will demonstrate broadcast’s value to doubting chief executives.’

Finally, the panel concurred that if broadcast opp­ortunities are to be maximised, the CEO cannot be the only board member who makes himself available for interview.

‘This is one area in which we are strong,’ said Padley. ‘I know I’ve got a CEO who will take the time to talk about stuff, but equally I am making it my responsibility to include the rest of the senior team.’

He closed the debate thus: ‘I was half-way into a photoshoot at the new Wembley Stadium recently when I got a call asking if Rentokil could respond to a breaking issue.

‘Me and a senior executive got into a cab – and then did six interviews on the trot.’

THE PANELLISTS

Andrew Caesar-Gordon is managing director of media training consultancy Electric Airwaves. He is a former ministerial special adviser and European government adviser, and was previously head of political and community affairs at Thames Water. He has also made two short films for Channel 4.

Since the beginning of the year, Malcolm Padley has been head of corporate communications at Rentokil Initial. Prior to this he was head of media relations at telecoms company NTL.

Scott Chisholm has more than 30 years’ experience in broadcast journalism. He presented Granada Television’s This Morning and launched/presented the then Channel 5’s breakfast news programme in 1997. Most recently he hosted the breakfast show on the ITV News Channel until 2005. He has anchored numerous radio programmes, including that of Talk Radio (now TalkSport).

Neil Henderson
has worked in media for more than 12 years. Previously a producer at ITN and the BBC’s breakfast and news programmes, he has worked on some of the biggest stories of the past decade: September 11, 7/7, the death of Princess Diana and London’s 2012 Olympic Games bid triumph.

Chris Fullerton started his career in sports marketing before moving into broadcast. A spell with a dotcom start-up was followed by the role of MDwith Bulletin International, a specialist broadcast PR agency within WPP.He helped pave the way for Bulletin to join Ogilvy in 2005, where he established and now runs the Ogilvy Broadcast & Digital
Media practice.

As well as her role at BBC TV Licensing, Sian Healey is a member of the CIPR. She is also vice chair of Unesco UK’s national commission, and is the chair of its Communication and Information Committee.

Howard Kosky is founder of broadcast consultancy Markettiers4dc. The agency has recently worked on campaigns for Barclays, The Hygiene Council, The Child Accident Prevention Trust and Cycling England.

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