OP-ED: CEOs look to PR pros as business demands increase

In the business world, there are many advantages, and indeed some challenges, to having a highly visible CEO within your organization.

In the business world, there are many advantages, and indeed some challenges, to having a highly visible CEO within your organization.

From a PR perspective, these benefits can include a reinforced image of leadership for the firm through a strong, solid leader and the tendency for journalists, and to some extent customers, to respond and relate better to individuals than institutions. There recently has been an increased level of skepticism about the celebrity CEOs that were perhaps too highly regarded during the past several years. The CEO's profile has evolved throughout business history in line with changing economic landscapes and social change. Lee Iacocca, the former chairman of Chrysler, is considered by many to be the first of the celebrity CEOs. With Iacocca came a change in the way the business press covered business and in the way that companies and the public thought about business and its leaders. His accomplishments and his ability to prevail against adversity made Iacocca a celebrity. With the onslaught of the power-hungry 1980s and the heady '90s, it was no longer enough to have just a capable CEO. Wall Street now demanded stellar performance. Boards increasingly looked outside the company in search of it, and executive mobility rose. CEO salaries, which already had shot up during the 1980s, rocketed in the '90s, and company leaders acquired superstar status. The media reinforced this new order by promoting the idea that the fate of a business depended mainly on the personality and vision of its leader. The business press has shifted its focus from covering companies to covering people steadily since the mid-'80s. The '90s saw an increase in the speed and intensity of business reporting. Fueled by publicity and a promising economic outlook, investors, company boards, and the public began to anticipate massive growth rates and increased share values. The media and the investing public are more skeptical about corporate leadership today. Following a slew of accounting scandals and mismanagement debacles, CEOs have become media prey. As a result, CEO branding must now focus more on solid performance measurements and a transparent business agenda. CEOs increasingly look to their communications professionals and PR agencies for guidance as the regulatory and business landscape intensifies its performance demands. Another reality of the current business climate is the fact that many business leaders are now on the defensive and unwilling to go beyond the basic news and reporting requirements. Such silence runs the risk of a new wave of media criticism and of missed opportunity. The media remains attracted to the well-grounded and open business leader who demonstrates passionate leadership and vision, particularly in challenging times. The way the CEO engages with the public and directs his organization reflects, for better or worse, on the entire organization. The communications professional should actively shape the corporate image by projecting the achievements and vision of the CEO as an indication of the company's values. It is also more important than ever before for today's CEO to embody the heart and mind of the company. The successful CEO also must be able to see a situation from all perspectives - including the employee, the community, and the marketplace. Malden Mills, the maker of Polartec fabrics, suffered a devastating plant fire in 1995 that wiped out operations at its main base in Massachusetts. The CEO kept every employee on the payroll until the plant was rebuilt because he valued people and held the fundamental belief that everyone has the right to work. Workers helped to clean up and rebuild the plant, a plan many of Malden's advisers had thought to be foolish. Real business leaders tend to search for new challenges outside the company, and their hunger for challenges and ultimate success is reflected in their private lives. Richard Branson is a prime example of this. The founder of the Virgin empire has been involved in a number of record-breaking land and air speed and distance attempts. He sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in record time. His hot-air balloon was the first and largest balloon to cross the Atlantic Ocean and then the Pacific Ocean, breaking all existing records with speeds of up to 245 mph. He is now planning to drive across the English Channel in an amphibious sports car. While not every CEO will go to these extremes, it is the inherent drive and tenacity characterized by successful leaders that will reflect positively on the organizations they lead.
  • Jody Peake is CEO of OnPR in Lake Oswego, OR.

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