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
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."