OPINION: News Analysis: PR must tell it straight to boost CEOs’ bankability - In the age of the celebrity even those who head big businesses must take PR advice and build the right public image in order to secure any US investment

It is no longer enough for chief executives of large companies to merely present or oversee their company’s vision - they now also need to embody that vision. While this is considered a ’no-brainer’ in the more entrepreneurial US, European CEOs hardly register on the profile scale, according to a recent study by Burson-Marsteller.

It is no longer enough for chief executives of large companies to

merely present or oversee their company’s vision - they now also need to

embody that vision. While this is considered a ’no-brainer’ in the more

entrepreneurial US, European CEOs hardly register on the profile scale,

according to a recent study by Burson-Marsteller.



In the poll of 1,400 US opinion-formers drawn from CEOs, senior

executives, financial analysts, government officials and journalists,

the profiles of European CEOsare so low over there that it affects the

level of US investment in their firms, and therefore the overall

performance of the company in the marketplace.



The CEOs of more than half of the largest European corporations by

revenue were unknown to the respondents. A shocking 41 per cent of them

said they had ’never heard’ of the top ten European firms’ bosses, while

only 14 per cent had never heard of the CEOs at the top ten largest US

firms.



The findings are particularly bleak for European companies listed on the

US stock market, or those hoping to attract US investment, as nearly all

financial analysts (94 per cent) recommend stock based on what they know

of the CEO’s reputation. And they considered the reputation of the CEO

as representing up to 45 per cent of the firm’s character.



At first glance, this looks like a classic case of American insularity,

and the sense that it need not look beyond its own borders to fulfil its

entrepreneurial needs. However, the influx of US capital into European

dot.com ventures of late would appear to dispel this.



But the results also serve to highlight essential differences between

the US and Europe in their attitudes to business.



The US has always been openly at ease with the notion of enterprise and

being in ’business’ has almost always been encouraged across all

sections of society.



’US businesses are the drivers of the world economy, so it is not

surprising that their own CEOs will be the prime focus for the opinion

formers,’ says Beverley Kaye, CEO of the Rowland Company.



But ever-present is the all-pervasive cult of personality. At a time

when celebrity has become the new religion in so many domestic lives, it

now transcends the traditional worlds of showbusiness, entertainment and

big business.



As Dr Leslie Gaines-Ross, B-M’s New York-based chief knowledge and

research officer and the report’s author says: ’business is the new

entertainment’.



Therefore, chief executives must become increasingly entertaining.



Add to this the increase in the number of private investors in the US

equity markets - current estimates suggest that 50 per cent of the US

population trades shares - and the idea that a CEO should in some way

personify the company in order to communicate its mission to this rising

majority, seems less leftfield.



’We now live in an ’attention economy’, not just an information one.

With so little time to negotiate all the information available, focusing

on a CEO is an easy way for people to hold in their minds who and what a

company is,’ says Gaines-Ross.



Which is where the PR function steps in, or should step in. But it is

often difficult to put that across to the client without causing

offence.



’PR agencies need to be more aggressive,’ notes Stan Woods, Brodeur

Worldwide’s UK MD. ’We don’t tell senior executives often enough that

they aren’t interesting enough. But unfortunately certain PR people can

be intimidated by their client’s position.’



That same position has to be channelled to a wider audience. So a closer

partnership has to be forged between client and PR function and a CEO

has to accept the commitment that he or she must act as the vocal as

well as focal bridge between the company and its public.



PRCA chairman Adrian Wheeler agrees. ’There was a time when reticence

and diffidence on the part of a CEO was seen as a mark of good

breeding.



Times have moved on. Today CEOs have an absolute duty to represent their

companies to the audiences who affect their success.’



Despite cultural differences, a few charismatic European CEOs are

starting to play the American game, showing that they can not only

dominate their own patch, but also mix it in the US. Richard Branson is

usually the first name on most people’s lists. His well-known talent for

self-publicity, which seemed vulgar to many at times, has ultimately

given him and Virgin a high profile in the US.



Chris Gent, as chief executive of Vodafone AirTouch, is a classic

example of the new type of CEO that European companies need. Few people

gave Gent much chance of success when he embarked on his ground-breaking

hostile takeover bid for Mannesmann. But throughout the protracted

negotiations Gent has maintained a positive public profile and has been

described as combining ’vision with charm, which is why he proved

persuasive in getting German investors to come his way’. This type of

positive public profile will be a major plus for Vodafone as it next

seeks to enter the US market.



’PRCA members thank their lucky stars for a client whose CEO takes this

part of his or her job seriously,’ adds Wheeler. ’It is currently the

exception rather than the rule. This will change fast, and UK PR

consultancies are the principal agents of that change.’



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