ANALYSIS: CEOs continue to brave the media’s scrutiny

Despite the media’s merciless pursuit of British Gas chief executive Cedric Brown, managers of Britain’s top companies have not all retreated into their bunkers

Despite the media’s merciless pursuit of British Gas chief executive

Cedric Brown, managers of Britain’s top companies have not all retreated

into their bunkers



When British Gas’ outgoing chief executive Cedric Brown caused a near

riot after a press conference arranged to announce the company’s

demerger, by attempting to evade the media pack, it was portrayed by the

media as the latest example of his failure to present the company in a

positive light.



BG could have done without it, after 18 months of turmoil including the

damaging shareholder backlash at BG’s annual general meeting last year

over the size of Brown’s pay package. But many company chairman will

have witnessed the media lynching with a sense of unease.



In the wake of BG’s public battering there have been some murmurings on

the PR grapevine that top executives are becoming increasingly reluctant

to take public responsibility for their companies’ reputations.



Yet this week’s exclusive PR Week/NOP poll reveals that an overwhelming

majority of the public (92 per cent of respondents) believes that

company chairman should be more publicly accountable when there are

problems involving their company. Asked whether they thought senior

company executives do a good job representing their company at times of

crisis, just under half (49 per cent) said no compared with 40 per cent

who answered affirmatively.



Some PR advisers admit that there is perhaps an ‘understandable

tendency’ for top managers to be nervous about fronting their companies

when there is bad news to be reported. However, there are no indications

of any wholesale retreat by CEOs from the belief that fronting their

company, in good times and in bad, is part of the role.



Virgin, which is arguably the most personality-driven company, has no

doubts whatsoever about the value of Richard Branson as the front person

for the company.



‘The chairman owns most of the company so, in this instance, it is

natural that he should be high profile. Chairmen and chief executives

should take much more of a lead role and should see themselves as the

custodians of the brand and face down criticism,’ says Virgin corporate

affairs director Will Whitehorn. He says that one of the key

frustrations for many journalists is that they cannot get chairmen and

chief executives to comment on stories. He adds that the problem is

worse in Britain than in many other countries.



‘Too many British companies rely on messages being shuffled between

people. You have to face down criticism. If you don’t, you run the risk

of damaging your company.’



City editors on the nationals have mixed views about whether there has

been a retreat by CEOs from high profile-media activity. But there is

also a certain amount of ego involved, with those journalists who fail

to get through being perceived as the ones not doing the job, rather

than the chairmen and chief executives themselves.



As one City editor put it, without committing himself to a comment on

whether there had been a change: ‘I get paid to get through to these

people - whether I do or not is a reflection on how well I am doing my

job’.



Among the broadsheet City editors, there appears to be some consensus

that the Cedric Brown pay incident is unlikely to lead to any wholesale

retreat of CEOs behind their PR machines.



‘What happened to Cedric Brown was a unique thing. It was a tabloid

witch hunt,’ says one journalist. But he admits: ‘The treatment meted

out by the tabloids is so brutal that many may well think ‘well bugger

that, why should I bother’.’



The demise of personality-led companies, in marked contrast to the last

decade, appears to have less to do with reticence by companies’ top

brass about seeking publicity than with the attitudes of analysts and

City institutions which, having seen the fall out from the personality-

driven companies of the late 1980s, are now looking for strengths across

a company.



‘The 1980s cult of the individual saw business promoted through one

individual. People are now promoting managers across the board as

institutions and analysts are wary of one-man bands,’ says corporate

communications consultant Anthony Wreford.



Wreford also believes that chief executives can’t afford to retreat from

the fight. ‘I don’t think chief executives can pull back because no

amount of obfuscation by PR will quell institutional interest.’



City institutions have been less than happy about attempts by big

business to backtrack on the recommendations for greater transparency on

directors’ pay and packages made in the recent Greenbury Committee

report on directors remuneration. Indeed, they are stepping up pressure

on companies for full disclosure of directors’ remuneration.



British Airways acting director of PR and communications Peter Jones

doesn’t believe that the importance of the profile of a CEO has changed.

He points to Mori polls which show that a company’s corporate image is

driven by the perceived quality of management.



‘Our view has always been that the CEO has always been an essential part

of projecting the calibre of management and its style and personality,’

says Jones.



But both Wreford and Jones believe the move away from the personality-

driven company is an evolutionary stage in British business.



The development of wider public interest in business in the 1980s, which

was sparked by the policies of the Thatcher government, was the right

environment for the nurturing of ‘heroes’ in British business.



‘The whole 1980s thing was a novelty. It has changed the perception of

how we see life. It is more difficult now to impress people,’ says

Jones.



While big personalities will certainly continue to exist in business,

the challenge for PR advisers, as Wreford puts it, is to present a

balanced view of a management team’s qualities.



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