From figurehead to thought leader

CEOs can no longer afford to be shiny-suited mouthpieces. Lisa LaMotta reports

CEOs can no longer afford to be shiny-suited mouthpieces. Lisa LaMotta reports

Positioning a CEO as a thought leader and not just a figurehead can mean treading a fine line when choosing how much exposure he or she should have.

Some CEOs bring exposure to their company by being exciting and highly quotable personalities, while others get recognition through their excellence at the helm. Creating a focused communications plan for a CEO client can have a huge impact on a company - both good and bad.

According to Andy Cunningham, CEO of CXO Communications, there are two kinds of CEOs: the rock-star CEO and his or her quieter counterpart. By way of example, she explains, "Mark Hurd, [CEO of] Hewlett-Packard, is not a rock-star CEO. He's a very operationally oriented, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy, if you take away this most recent crisis [it has] been facing."

Cunningham advises that CEOs in Hurd's mold should avoid trying to model themselves for personal attention, and instead focus on the things they are doing for the company and the results they are getting for those things.

Realizing which kind of CEO you have on your hands - whether it be a Hurd or a Steve Jobs - plays a major role in what kinds of engagements they should pursue.

Connie Connors, president and CEO of Connors Communications, suggests that inexperienced speakers go the college route when they first start addressing a public forum, as media training plays an important role in putting a CEO at ease before addressing the public.

"The opportunities are endless," she says. "You can go to Harvard, you can go to NYU, and you can offer the school an expert resource. It doesn't always further their business goals, but it gives them practice."

For other, more seasoned CEOs, TV - with its potential for sound bites or blog pick-up - might be more suited to a particular personality or company agenda. "There is a huge opportunity with TV, because there is so much [of it]," says Connors. "But you have to make sure it satisfies what you are trying to do; is that Power Lunch or is it The View?"

The most important aspect of creating visibility for a CEO is choosing a topic for them to speak about that is geared toward the company's greater communications message.

"The best way to approach a CEO is to pick topics that impact the performance of the company versus a trend or commenting on what is in the news right now," says Aaron Kwittken, CEO of Kwittken & Co. "It needs to be agenda-driven, with the CEO's agenda in mind, not the market's agenda."

Having a client associated with a political or environmental issue can lead to trouble if that issue becomes a volatile news topic; reflecting badly on both the CEO and the company by association. According to Connors, the CEO's spotlight should always be about the company and not his or her personal beliefs. "My strategy always is to pick a topic for the quarter and stick to it," she explains. "The next quarter you can focus on another aspect of your company."

"The trend more recently for a lot of CEOs is to go the CSR route and to be seen as a good citizen who is giving back," says Kwittken. "Very rarely do you see CEOs commenting on issues. It isn't wise to attach themselves to many issues."

When deciding which opportunities are best for a CEO, it's important to make sure that they will be among their peers - that is, that they are not by far the most senior person there and that the other companies in attendance are appropriate - and that they have sufficient background on the topic they are discussing at an event or speaking engagement.

"The mistake a lot of communicators make is doing media for media's sake," Kwittken warns. "They can't be an expert at everything. You need to keep it a little more macro. Going more micro can be very dangerous."

No communications strategy is complete without coordination between the firm and the in-house PR staff. Making sure a message is consistent and that all parties understand which venues are best for your CEO will keep your client from generating bad press. Connors adds, "Make sure everyone is on the same page; you only get one chance to build that trust with the media."

Technique Tips

Work with a CEO's entire comms team to find the best opportunities

Develop a distinct strategy regarding a CEO's message that supports company objectives

Develop strategic relationships with a small group of reporters who will likely offer favorable coverage

Let your CEO client go out unprepared. They should be able to answer the tough questions

Push a CEO into the limelight before he or she is prepared to handle the exposure

Strive for vanity press, like gossip columns, that position your CEO in too much of a personal light

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