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
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
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
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
’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
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.’