PR TECHNIQUE: New CEO: Telling the press, 'Meet the new boss'

Introducing a company's new CEO to the media is laden with dangers. Aleksandra Todorova digs up tips for avoiding catastrophe.

Introducing a company's new CEO to the media is laden with dangers. Aleksandra Todorova digs up tips for avoiding catastrophe.

Susan Kohl still remembers how a well-known wireless internet company where she used to work introduced its new CEO to the media. It was a nightmare. "He hit the job day one, wanted interviews day one, and felt really, really confident about his ability to talk to the news media," says Kohl, now VP of Sierra Communications, based in Twain Harte, CA. "He did not feel he needed, nor had the time to discuss, a game plan, vision, or key messages with the PR team or existing executive team. It was an, 'I am here, get me The New York Times' situation." She did get him a good-looking lineup of interviews, starting with The Wall Street Journal. And then Kohl discovered during the phone interview that the CEO was unwilling to give the reporter any news at all. "It was awful. The call ended with the reporter telling the CEO to call back when he had some news," Kohl says. She canceled all the other interviews for fear of ruining longtime relationships. "Needless to say, the company that had been in business for 20 years before his arrival no longer exists," she says. "He was the last CEO." While few instances of introducing a new chief executive to the press will go as badly, the assignment can be fraught with difficulties and danger. PR pros who've been through it say there is no tried-and-true formula. "There's no either/or, and each situation is going to be different," says Robert Hallman, co-chair of Fleishman-Hillard's technology practice. "There are no set answers." Still, there are some general ground rules to follow. Most PR pros agree that companies should do one thing when introducing a CEO to the media: slow down. Take the time to get to know the new CEO, make sure there are no skeletons in the closet, and work with the CEO to carefully craft the messages he will articulate. "You have to move slowly. It's not a good time to come out of the chute with a lot of fire," says Jerry Schwartz, CEO of New York-based G.S. Schwartz & Co. "You need to test the water and see what the media response is." Schwartz suggests that the new CEO first meet with regional media, trade publications, industry analysts and leaders, and trade-association executives so they can "accept the CEO and create buzz" for the national and consumer reporters. This is what PR agency Lois Paul & Partners did when a client suddenly changed its CEO, even though the company, which the chief executive had co-founded, had been performing very well. "We needed to keep the story of the abrupt change to company leadership out of the media until we had some time to determine our messaging for the new CEO," says Ted Weismann, VP of client services at Lois Paul. They let some time pass, and introduced the new CEO and the company's new strategy to a small group of analysts and trade-magazine editors, soliciting their reaction to the change. The reaction was positive, so the agency did a full-scale media tour. Approaching trade publications and media influencers before going global might save you time and money, too. Researching the most appropriate publications, contacts, and realistic opportunities before beginning outreach is a strategy the San Francisco Golin/Harris team used when it had to introduce two new CEOs for one company over the past year (and on a monthly budget of only $8,000). With both CEOs, Golin/Harris turned to trade outlets and local media first. However, a long wait may not always be necessary or desired. For example, early this year, Fleishman worked with software company J.D. Edwards on its first change in leadership in the past 25 years. As unusual as it is to find a software company that's 25 years old, it's even more unusual to find one that has had the same CEO all that time. So J.D. Edwards and Fleishman saw a need to act fast; they put new CEO Bob Dutkowsky in front of the cameras right away. "In our case, the story was the hook, we felt the iron was hot, and we had to strike," says Victor Chayet, senior manager of corporate communications at J.D. Edwards. Fortunately, Dutkowsky proved to be the perfect asset - he had a clear vision for the company's future, which he was able to communicate to the media through powerful, confident messages. "And we fortified our relationship with journalists by giving them access as soon as the story broke," Chayet says. But remember, introducing a CEO doesn't take place over a single day or even a month. Especially for Fortune 500 companies, and especially in the age of corporate scandals, it's a long-term project. "It's a continuous process," says Lawrence Parnell, director of global PR at accounting firm Ernst & Young. "The media and the public, especially now, are going to be very skeptical on leadership, so a couple of photographs and a press release won't help." E&Y announced a new CEO in July 2001, just when the accounting profession was under attack. It took Jim Turley one year to establish himself as a reliable leader of a reliable company, Parnell says. Part of the E&Y strategy was to keep a low profile through the worst part of the Anderson scandal to avoid negative media coverage. Not surprisingly, that has become a preferred strategy with many corporations. Recently, Gap Inc. hired a CEO who does not come from the fashion industry - a potentially risky situation. "They had to announce him, because they're a publicly traded company, but they're keeping a very low profile until they see how he does," Schwartz says. "They're doing the right thing." Two images you don't want to project for your new CEO in this day and age, Schwartz says, are the CEO as a celebrity and the CEO as a politician. Don't throw the CEO in the limelight right away, and don't let them make promises he or she might not be able to live up to. "PR people always have the itchy trigger finger when it comes to changes in company leadership," says Schwartz. "They see it as an opportunity to create a lot of press buzz, and they shouldn't." -------------- Technique tips Do fully understand the CEO's background. You don't want any bad surprises Do carefully craft the message the CEO will articulate to the media, and train the CEO to present that message effectively Do maintain momentum. Once the CEO has been introduced to the media, maintain that contact over time, and make sure the CEO is easily accessible Don't rush to put the CEO before the cameras. You need to make certain that he or she is ready Don't become an obstacle between the CEO and the media. When the time is right, be a conduit Don't expose the CEO to the media to make yourself look good. Wait until the CEO has meaningful news or an overall vision to deliver

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