ANALYSIS: 'Cult of personality' gains attention - The fears of chairmen and CEOs about media exposure, documented in fresh research this week, is offset by increased competition among the business media, writes Chris Scott

The rise of the internet as a tool for the reporting of news - and

in particular its role in the business world - means that by the time a

story makes the national newspapers or evening TV news bulletins, more

immediate reporting media will have stolen their thunder. To attract the

attention of one's peers to the piece, one must be able to quote a more

authoritative figure than one's rivals. That usually means the boss.

Yet the creation of this so-called 'cult of personality' around

high-profile captains of industry appears to be a voluntary development.

The debate over Britain's entry into the euro, for example, has prompted

a volley of letters to national newspapers signed by dozens of business

leaders, designed to outline their beliefs on a major issue of the


The reaction of the news media to such letters is indicative of the

interest in the views of major business players, while the very

existence of the correspondence suggests the authors consider themselves

important enough for their views to hold some sway.

Vodafone Group chief executive Chris Gent is one of this new breed of

media-courting industry leaders. His recent comments on the merits of

the euro - and the implicit criticism of William Hague's leadership of

the Conservative Party - were deemed to hold sufficient weight to

warrant front-page newspaper coverage and raise serious questions about

Hague's ability to win the support of the business community.

Vodafone PRO Bryony Clow admits there are benefits from working with a

media-savvy boss: 'For a press officer it's a bonus to work for someone

confident in front of the media.'

With media attention encouraged by such a senior CEO, Clow accepts there

is more emphasis on meeting the needs of the larger broadcasters:

'Regional press and websites are happy to talk to PROs, and they will

get the same answer from a PRO as they would from the chairman. Chris

(Gent) likes to make himself accessible, but you find people are willing

to let the press office comment. Histime is in short supply and if there

is a shortfall in his ability to comment it filters down the chain of


Events such as financial results allow lesser media access to senior

figures, since schedules can be cleared in advance to allow adequate


But when an urgent reaction is required, difficulties arise. PROs then

have to be more selective in who is given access. 'We set aside time for

the likes of CNN and the BBC. With broadcasters and papers you know that

the story will get to the other publications anyway,' said one.

There are other pitfalls in raising the profile of the CEO. John

Stonborough trains staff from Tesco, Airtours, Abbey National and Shell.

'Managers should think hard about whether they want to become public

figures because when problems arise their status comes back to haunt

them,' he says.

'As well as issues of family and privacy it is unwise for a person to be

too closely identified with a corporation. Richard Branson and Virgin

are so closely linked that if something happens to him it damages the

Virgin brand,' Stonborough adds.

A spokesperson for Sainsbury's - whose CEO, Sir Peter Davis, rose to

prominence in a former role as The Man from the Pru - agrees that time

pressures are a significant factor: 'It depends what the story is, of

course. Our attitude is that where it's appropriate to put the press

onto senior management, we will do so. For the most part the media are

good for knowing how big companies work and accepting that people won't

have clear diaries. No journalist thinks a CEO has unlimited time.'

Media interest in a company's management team has been a longstanding

theme in the business world from the likes of JD Rockefeller through to

Branson. But even the least flamboyant executive is now potentially

newsworthy as the media seek to provide a human angle - or at least a

human face - to dry business reports.

While some managers court publicity, there remains unease for


A recent survey by training group Aziz Management Communications

revealed that 84 per cent of UK company directors fear public speaking

more than any other business activity.

Only 22 per cent of respondents admitted they would be confident in a TV

interview. According to Aziz Corporation chairman Khalid Aziz:

'Directors are not only failing to grasp the art of public speaking, but

are becoming worse at it and more nervous. Company directors must be

equipped with the skills to enable them to stand up and speak with

confidence or they risk harming their company's reputation.'

All of which only serves to increase the already significant pressure on

CEOs, who become accountable not just to their shareholders and boards,

but to a national audience of millions, for whom the reputation and

presentation of the individual and the company are more or less the same


It falls to press officers and PR agencies to ensure their figurehead is

willing and able to convey the necessary corporate message, and balance

the need for publicity with the demands of business.

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