ANALYSIS: Corporate Communications - Getting closer to the CEO: therewards and the risks

Corporate communicators want to be close to their CEOs. But, as

John Frank finds out, they need to stay focused on the corporation and

not just the big boss.

Like most of Detroit, Jason Vines had been hearing rumors for months

that Ford Motor CEO Jac Nasser would be forced out. So when the deed was

done October 29, Vines wasn't surprised. He also wasn't surprised that

he was given the boot along with Nasser.

"I knew if the rumors were going to come true about Jac, I'd be gone in

a millisecond," Vines, former Ford VP of communications, recounts.

Vines didn't leave Ford for any PR failings, observers agree. His peers

give him generally high marks for how he handled Ford's communications

during the morass of the Ford-Firestone tire controversy over the past

two years.

No, Vines was shown the door because he had become identified as

Nasser's PR man. Brought to Ford by Nasser in early 2000, he became a

trusted advisor of the top man, something that so many corporate PR

people have spent years and years trying to achieve. In fact, being 'at

the top table' or 'at the right hand of the CEO' has been one of the

loudest rallying calls in the PR industry over the last decade. But, if

Vines' experience is any indication, maybe PR execs should be careful

what they wish for.

Does becoming a senior-level advisor to a CEO necessarily mean that a PR

person's corporate fate is tied to that CEO? In becoming more than mere

spokespeople, have corporate PR people made themselves vulnerable to

every palace coup that occurs in corporate America?

The modern CEO and head of PR

The days when CEOs rose through the ranks after working 40 years for a

company are largely over. These days, CEOs are recruited, as often as

not, from outside a company for their particular skills at turning

around troubled operations or expanding growing enterprises. That's

given rise to a cult of personality for CEOs, contends Clarke Caywood,

director of the corporate PR graduate program at Northwestern

University's Medill School of Journalism.

"There's too much personality leadership in business today, and there's

a generation of PR people who don't understand the risk of building a

CEO's personality," says Caywood. The risk is being identified with the

CEO, not the company.

"You're connected at the hip," says Steven Rossi, CEO of McLaren

Performance Technologies, and a former head of Chrysler PR who has seen

the issue from both sides. If a PR exec becomes too closely identified

with an ousted CEO, "it's a game of musical chairs. When the music

stops, there's one less chair for you," says Rossi.

Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, notes

that he's seen the role of corporate PR person change in the past

several years into that of a senior advisor. "Five years ago or longer,

the PR person didn't have such a prominent place in the corporate

structure. It may make you vulnerable in one sense, but it's an

advantage in another. The role is changing from a promoter to an advisor

and counselor, which is good."

Smith advises corporate PR chiefs to think of themselves as the national

security advisor for their company, watching for potential trouble,

dealing with hot issues, and minimizing damage from potential problems

with quick responses. Providing that sort of value to a company can

insulate a PR person from the ax should his or her CEO suddenly be given

a pink slip, Smith and others agree.

Don Kirchoffner, VP of corporate communications with utility company

Exelon, says, "I'd rather think if we're really good at what we do, we

become the confidant not only to the CEO, but to the whole senior


Kirchoffner is in the interesting position of dealing with two co-CEOs,

the result of the merger that created Exelon. He can't be seen as

favoring one CEO over another. "My loyalties are to the organization and

to both of these individuals," he says.

As a result, Kirchoffner sees himself as an information broker, much as

Smith describes. He provides key information about issues facing the

company not only to his CEOs, but to other senior managers. "I've got a

lot of bosses," he says.

Positioning the PR person

Ron Culp, SVP of public relations and government affairs with Sears

Roebuck, survived a CEO transition last fall. He agrees that corporate

PR people, to have any corporate longevity, must be seen as more than

mouthpieces for a CEO.

"If you're perceived as having the company's best interest at heart

first, and then doing an effective job of representing the CEO's

interests, then the situation is healthier," says Culp.

A PR person can sell him or herself as a major source of continuity to a

new CEO coming in from outside a company, Culp contends. When Sears was

considering CEO candidates, Culp's department put together a briefing

book that would tell the new CEO about major issues facing Sears, and

even included such minutiae as key acronyms used in the company that an

outsider might not be familiar with. "We just wanted to give the new CEO

a crib sheet," he says. Sears eventually picked an internal candidate

with whom Culp had worked in the past.

Still, even Culp admits that the more political a company's hierarchy,

the more difficult it is for a PR person to hold on during a CEO


McLaren CEO Rossi adds that in political companies, the top PR spot is

seen as a key political appointment.

"You're waging a war, and the communications front is so critical," he

says. Often, a new CEO will immediately replace the PR person and the

head of sales because those two positions are the major flag-carriers

for an organization when it interacts with its key audiences, he


"The sales guy and the PR guy are at the pulpit spouting, preaching the

company religion," he says. PR people need to do more to be thought of

as integral to company operations to avoid sudden ousters, Rossi


Survival is based on trust

Rich Jernstedt, CEO with Golin/Harris International, says whether a PR

person can survive a CEO ouster all comes down to one question: "Where

is the trust? Is it between the PR person and the CEO, or the PR person

and the company?"

A PR person with experience and expertise relevant to a new CEO can

survive a management shakeup, Jernstedt says. Survival can also be

helped if the new CEO has worked with the PR person in the past. An

internal candidate promoted to CEO could already have an appreciation of

a PR person's value to a company, he explains.

If a PR person has a long history with an outgoing CEO or was identified

as that person's personal spokesman, then surviving a coup becomes more

difficult, Jernstedt says.

Northwestern's Caywood would like to see a corporate PR person come to

be thought of as independent of a particular CEO. Saying the two are

tied together "perpetuates the myth of the PR person as an executive

assistant of the CEO," he says.

But in some highly political companies, particularly those that have

gone through a crisis in which the PR person has been at the elbow of

the CEO for a prolonged period of time, it may be a connection that's

difficult to break. That could mean more corporate PR people will be

taking the fall for their CEOs' shortcomings as this very difficult

business year draws to a close.

Even Kirchoffner, who feels secure at Exelon, says a PR person can never

feel too secure, adding that he is often reminded of his own advice:

"Today's peacock is tomorrow's feather duster."

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