CEOs are a picky bunch by nature.
They have to be. When the fate of a company can rest, in part, on the ability to charm the press, inspire employees, and woo investors, it pays to be selective about whom you surround yourself with.
Most CEOs have in-house communications teams, but many also like the availability of outside PR counsel to give a fresh perspective and (hopefully) uninfluenced advice on how a leader can get messages out most effectively. These profiles of five CEOs and their personal agency counselors prove that no matter what business you're in, it's always nice to have someone to whisper in your ear.
Patty McDonough Kennedy
CEO, Kennedy Spencer
When Tony Manwaring took over as head of Scope, a prominent UK-based international charity that focuses on assisting those with cerebral palsy, he knew whom to turn to for communications advice: Patty McDonough Kennedy, his former employee at another charity who had established herself in PR back in the US as CEO of Kennedy Spencer.
"We're both interested in the ongoing reflection of British and US politics, culture, and experience," he says. "For me, getting an American sensibility to that ... is really useful."
Manwaring credits Kennedy with helping him hone his strategic communications toward potential corporate partners. He also says his image as CEO is crucial as Scope repositions itself in a more diverse and global role. "It needs a personality and face that [stakeholders] can relate to, and that's been me in the role of CEO," he says.
"Tony's role might even go beyond what a corporate [CEO's] role is," says Kennedy. "It's not just pushing product, but seeing a mission through and getting key stakeholders behind it."
Manwaring's job is a tall order, but Kennedy, head of her own business, says her role isn't all giving. "The counseling really goes both ways," she says.
Chairman and CEO, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians
Laura Hall Knapp
VP and director of PR, Off Madison Ave
The San Manuel tribe in California numbers only about 200, but its business enterprises ? which include gaming, bottled water, and real estate ?employ more than 3,500 people. Deron Marquez must juggle simultaneous duties as CEO of a business empire and elected political head of the tribe's government.
The tribe has been working with Off Madison Ave since 2001. Marquez praises the agency and Laura Hall Knapp for their attention to the intricacies of tribal culture, above and beyond simple corporate PR.
"[Knapp] understands perfectly when we have to engage on certain hot issues," Marquez says. "For me, it's very important that I can have that high level of trust with Laura ... that trust factor is just irreplaceable."
Knapp explains that an initial ad contract has evolved into a close relationship with Marquez. She says she persuaded him to deal more actively with the press. Now, she advises him on everything from IR to government relations.
"It took a lot of coercion on my part and relationship-building to get him to trust me," she admits. "I helped him understand how important it was for him to be a voice for all Indian people, not just members of his tribe."
President and CEO, Vignette
CEO, GCI Group
Vignette, a software company that made it through the bubble's burst and posted revenues approaching $200 million last year, has worked with GCI Group for more than a year. And Jeff Hunt has been personally advising Tom Hogan for the past eight months.
"With Jeff's career experience and his position as CEO, I view him as a peer," Hogan says. "There is a commonality in our perspectives, and he can challenge me to look at a problem differently, which I find energizing."
GCI is a user of Vignette's products, so Hogan felt that the firm "believed in the company as much as we did."
"Tom has gotten a lot more involved in managing the intangibles [of business] ? reputation and image," explains Hunt. "He is a unique kind of CEO in that he understands that there's a direct connection between his reputation, the company's reputation, and the business performance of the company."
More broadly, Hunt says that successful CEO communications rest on common principles: making the in-house communications contact a partner rather than a rival and telling a CEO the total truth. "They don't want 'yes' men," Hunt says. "They want people unafraid to challenge them."
President and CEO,
The Regence Group
GM and senior partner,
Fleishman-Hillard Portland, OR
The Regence Group is the largest healthcare organization in the Pacific Northwest, serving more than 3 million customers. For the past 18 months, CEO Mark Ganz has been working to reorganize and solidify the company's corporate culture, and he notes that the process requires "the creation and delivery of very targeted messages."
Fleishman-Hillard Portland, OR, GM Aili Jokela, who is helping Ganz hone messaging during the transition, praises his vision for the future as "well articulated and very strong."
Ganz's own communications are doubly important because he places a high value on face-to-face meetings with stakeholders. "I'm not one to sit behind my desk," he says. "I'm passionate about getting out and telling our company's story."
In the ultra-competitive healthcare sector, "communications isn't something that can be given a trial run," Ganz says.
Jokela says that Ganz, like all CEOs, needs more than simply business and PR expertise. "If you're providing counsel to someone at the CEO level ... relationships are the most important thing," she says, "because they have to trust you."
CEO, Attensity Corp.
President and CEO, Sterling PR
Attensity, which makes computer programs that analyze masses of text to detect structure and patterns, is a private California-based company whose customers range from large corporations to the US Department pf Homeland Security. Craig Norris, who has led Attensity for the past two years, admits that the company faces a unique set of communications challenges.
"We're a start-up, so generally what that means is you work really, really hard on trying to get your name out there," he says. But the fact that some of Attensity's best work is classified means that many of the usual customer testimonials are out of the question.
Instead, Norris turned to Marianne O'Connor and Sterling PR to help position both him and his company as leaders in the field, and to raise their visibility in markets outside of government agencies. "In the software and technology market, what's really required is not only someone that knows their craft, which Marianne does, but people who are savvy and technologically sound," Norris says.
O'Connor managed to persuade IN-Q-TEL, the investment arm of the CIA, to talk publicly about why it invested in Attensity. She urged Norris, who tends to dismiss "cult of personality" CEO-promotion techniques, to put himself forward more to media and analysts as the face of a company that might otherwise melt into the shadows of the intelligence community. "When you don't have customers who are going to stand up and talk ... the credibility of the CEO is incredibly important," she says. "You have to believe that Craig is a stand-up guy."
Norris also notes that O'Connor "has not been bashful" in advising him on personnel and other strategic business moves, and credits her for helping the company grow. "What it comes down to," he says of his PR counsel, "is, what do people who have credibility say about you?"
What a CEO wants
Five key qualities a CEO needs from his or her communications counsel:
- Absolute trust in the PR counsel
- A strong working relationship between in-house and outside teams
- Restraint from being "yes" men
- Intimate knowledge of the business or field
- Capability to help the CEO appreciate the value and importance of personal reputation