Counseling the top tier

Employees will often turn to their CEO for guidance. But whom does the CEO turn to? Ted McKenna explores the relationships that exist between CEOs and their corporate communications teams

Employees will often turn to their CEO for guidance. But whom does the CEO turn to? Ted McKenna explores the relationships that exist between CEOs and their corporate communications teams

Almost every CEO will say his or her communications team helps achieve goals of one sort or another, but AARP CEO Bill Novelli says communications at his organization isn't just a nice thing to have; it's the AARP's main reason for being. Such is the case for all lobbying groups, and AARP is one of the most powerful in the country, representing more than 35 million people aged 50 and older. When the AARP chooses to weigh in on a public policy issue, such as healthcare or Social Security, people - including lawmakers - listen.

"We're an advocacy group, and if you're going to be a successful organization in advocacy, you've got to generate support, as well as go after policymakers," says Novelli, cofounder of Porter Novelli and a former president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "If you think about AARP in those terms, there's no discipline that's more core than communications."

In the midst of a book tour for 50+: Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America, which Novelli co-wrote with Boe Workman, Novelli needs his director of media relations, Mark Kitchens, and other members of the AARP communications team to manage a large portion of his time. More broadly, the communications team - including Fleishman-Hillard, which provides both strategic counsel, as well as tactical assistance for various kinds of media outreach - works to ensure that Novelli and the rest of the executive team maintain efficient communications with AARP's millions of members and thousands of volunteers.

"You can't present a united front, you can't present a message to the outside world, if your internal people don't understand and embrace it," Novelli says.

That efficiency of communications is also something CEO Roy Vallee seeks at Avnet, a distributor of semiconductors and other computer networking equipment. Avnet's communications team - including chief communications officer Al Maag, who sits on the company's executive board, and PR agency Brodeur - helps communicate with three main audiences: employees, distributors, and investors. When employees and distributors better understand what the company is trying to achieve, they naturally can do more to help, Vallee notes.

Guidance from below

Vallee, Novelli, and other CEOs acknowledge that, whether they like it or not, investors and the public at large tend to associate a business or other organization with the CEO, and the communications teams must help them navigate the media market, deciding when and where the CEO will grant an interview, give a speech, write an Op-Ed, and so on.

"I'm probably low ego compared with the average Fortune 500 company," Vallee says. "But from an employee communications point of view, and investor's point of view, there's no way around it: I'm the head on the body. I've got to take responsibility."

At Athena Technologies, a maker of hardware and software for controlling unmanned area vehicles (UAVs) - aka "drones," used for various military, scientific, and commercial purposes - CEO David Vos says his PR team, led by director of PR Maureen Stevens, not only maintains the visibility of Vos as a leader within the defense and aerospace industries, but also helps the company as a whole contribute to progress within the business community and even society as a whole.

For instance, along with overseeing and executing Athena's trade show attendance - key for any aerospace business looking to win customers and establish partnerships - Stevens has helped Vos plot a campaign in the past year to push the aerospace community to develop regulatory and technological solutions for UAV operation within manned airspaces - solutions that can be difficult to find because of competitive rivalries, but could help perhaps prevent accidents like the recent plane crash in New York that killed New York Yankees player Cory Lidle.

Vos says his relationship with his PR counsel is close and highly collaborative, and he prefers to keep it within his four walls. He says he tried using outside firms that promised to eat, sleep, and drink the company, but found they just never were able to fully understand the company's aims or culture.

"We tried the outsource model, and it just didn't work," Vos says. "It's just not possible to document what a company is and have them fill it. [Stevens] can call me, and I can call her at any time, and it needs to be a good relationship."

For CEO Dave Schaeffer of Cogent Communications, an Internet service provider operating in 95 markets in North America and Western Europe, PR firms can be useful when a company is just starting out and needs to build awareness among the media, investors, and businesses, but the company now handles communications in-house. Cogent has solid relationships with all the key telecom publications, Schaeffer says, and because it does little advertising, the company has more money to spend on in-house PR.

Schaeffer and Cogent director of marketing communications Jeff Henriksen meet formally once a week and communicate informally, as well, with Henriksen given open access to Schaeffer's meeting schedule.

"He always makes time for any PR activity I choose to book," Henriksen says. "Dave is aware that a CEO's participation can be the difference between a mention and an in-depth profile."

Communicating: Views from the C-suite

AARP CEO Bill Novelli on... scheduling interviews:
"I count a great deal on [the media relations director] to tell me, 'You've got to do this,' or, 'You should not.' But I have my own views on when I need to speak out."

Avnet CEO Roy Vallee on... internal communications:
"It struck me years ago that the number one way to effect change is communication. We do an annual employee survey to get 'line of sight' - do the employees understand what we're doing?"

Helium.com CEO Mark Ranalli on... media exposure:
"When you're small and you're trying to articulate why you're different, the industry wants to hear one person."

Terlato Wine Group CEO William Terlato on... interaction:
"We have a once-a-month executive committee meeting. We [also] spend a week every year together doing strategic planning with all the PR, customer service, finance and other key people."

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