Here's a riddle for you: A client company has invited PR agencies to pitch, written a detailed brief, and selected a firm. The agency team and the client contact start working together, and they come up with a great PR program that includes potential opportunities for the CEO to talk to the media. Trouble is, he or she really doesn't want to do it.
They want the good publicity, but don't want to take an active role in getting it.
It's enough to have even the coolest PR pro banging his head against the boardroom table, but there are ways of successfully handling a reluctant CEO.
The first step is to work out why the boss doesn't want to be the media face of the company. It might seem to be an obvious and unremarkable thing for you, but take time to work out what the problem is. It might be an emotional issue, such as nerves, shyness, embarrassment, or fear.
"This is where we become psychotherapists - it's usually some kind of fear, real or imagined, says Noemi Pollack, president and CEO Pollack PR Marketing Group. "Sometimes it can even be distrust of the PR agency, and what they can or can't achieve - they have to have confidence in their agency. It takes a lot of education and client hand-holding."
Alternatively, it might be that your CEO has a business explanation for his reluctance, like a suspicion of the media, thinking they'll twist anything. Or it could be not wanting to turn stakeholders off by being an overexposed business personality.
There's also the possibility he has something personal or professional to hide. Pollack says, "In 20 years in this business, I've only had four CEOs who were absolutely non-negotiable about speaking to the media themselves. I have a suspicion that there was something they didn't want disclosed."
And even in the media-savvy 21st century, there are still plenty of CEOs who really don't understand what a good relationship with the media can do for their business.
"There is still an element of educating clients, says Pollack. "If the CEO is in his late 50s, running a small company, is doing OK, and has always done business with a handshake, he doesn't always see the reasons for more exposure."
She says CEOs can be persuaded by the example of their competition, though: Show how much good a media presence is doing for their archrivals, and they often become more willing.
Vickee Adams, who runs Hill & Knowlton's media communications practice, says one of the most common reasons for reluctance is not wanting to waste precious time on anyone but core business media and analysts. "Senior executives are very busy, and reluctant to communicate with an audience that they believe will not understand their business, she says.
Another scenario is when a well-known CEO or president is replaced by his second-in-command, or when new blood comes in. Just because the new boss is filling a media expert's shoes doesn't mean he finds it easy to speak to the media, stakeholders, and analysts - or even his own employees.
In any case, when working on a campaign with a reluctant spokesperson, it's best to start well within his comfort zone, taking baby steps to visibility.
Start with the employee magazine or the intranet - internal communications channels with a familiar audience. Then move on to non-controversial local publications and trade magazines, moving up to a cover story or a major feature. If that goes well, start targeting the business pages. Only then should the consumer press and broadcast media be approached.
At first, print media is usually a better medium than broadcast, since there is usually the opportunity to send more information over, or to check facts and get back to the reporter.
If your client's supposed spokesperson doesn't want to talk, you need to be thoughtful and "pick battles carefully in an environment where the CEO feels in control, says Adams.
One of her tips is to put together a book for the CEO as a media relations campaign progresses, to be used for private revision. The book might include sample interview questions, key messages, clippings, video of a show on which they are due to appear, and results of competitive research.
Similarly, Pollack has a formal preparation procedure, including a media-training handbook covering everything from wearing jewelry to positioning the company so there is no mistaking what's being said, even when broadcasters take out sound bites. These are the kinds of tools that can be used to help a shivering wreck feel more in control.
Denise Harrington, who runs media trainer Harrington & Associates, says in terms of how you deal with them, "there's no difference between a reluctant CEO and anyone else who needs media training. Most people are reluctant to talk to the media. They need to have a certain kind of attitude, they need to know how to handle adrenaline, and they need to know their audience."
The first of these, attitude, is critical. It's important the client understand that the reporter is a conduit to his audience, and that an interview is not about talking to a reporter, but an opportunity to talk to customers.
"You need to show them that it's important for even a shy client to get out there - customers want to know the heart, mind, and face behind the company name, says Harrington.
As a media trainer, Harrington doesn't have the luxury of spending months building up a client - they usually come to her with a specific media opportunity looming. Sometimes she only gets one day with them, although she has spent up to six weeks preparing clients.
With a properly planned, slow-burn PR program of building a reluctant exec into a confident spokesperson, you're looking at a far longer time frame. To a great extent, it depends on the individual you're dealing with. But it's not an overnight project, and could take anywhere from two to 18 months of work.
Time and preparation are the key to getting someone in shape to face the media. The powerful boss might be shaking like jelly the first time he has to do the business, but with careful handling, he can become a star. Just pray he doesn't have something to hide.
1. Do find out the reasons behind the CEO's reluctance. It's difficult to move forward unless you know what the problem is
2. Do be thoughtful and understanding. Gentle persuasion and education work better than trying to force the issue
3. Do prepare your client properly so he or she feels both comfortable and in control. Find out what their natural style is, and build around it
1. Don't expect an outside media relations company to work miracles with your client if you only give them a day's notice
2. Don't take things too fast. Putting a terrified CEO in front of CBS cameras is not going to do you or him any favors
3. Don't throw the CEO in front of everyone. Make sure he talks to the media regularly, but also strategically.