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.