To effectively build trust, CEO mustn't overshadow company

Business and religious doctrines warn of the dangers of serving two masters. For PR pros there are at least two: the CEO, and the organization the CEO leads. When faced with the challenge of crafting communications strategies and providing counsel, which one should be the star? While not exactly dangerous, it is a delicate matter.

Business and religious doctrines warn of the dangers of serving two masters. For PR pros there are at least two: the CEO, and the organization the CEO leads. When faced with the challenge of crafting communications strategies and providing counsel, which one should be the star? While not exactly dangerous, it is a delicate matter.

The company and its CEO are intertwined like ivy on a tree. Having an active, positive profile before key audiences is crucial for both. The media, Wall Street, and governmental entities push for CEOs to be constantly visible and available. Left unmanaged, it can be a trap. When CEOs are known as well as, or better than, the organizations they lead, it's usually due to turmoil. Think Richard Parsons, Time Warner CEO, or Rick Wagoner, General Motors chairman and CEO.

According to Edelman's 2006 Annual Trust Barometer of opinion leaders, trust in a company drives business tangibles, e.g., sales, investors, talent. The Barometer identified eight factors that test higher than "a visible CEO" in building trust: quality products and services, attentiveness to customer needs, fair pricing, good employee and labor relations, strong financial performance, socially responsible activities, a familiar corporate brand, and dialogue with all stakeholders. For communicators, this presents a solid road map for strategies that build trust. Trust leads to better company performance. Better performance leads to bigger, non-controversial bonuses.

Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, points out that CEOs aren't opposed to strategies that build their organizations' profiles and reputations, centering less on themselves. Given the heightened scrutiny of business practices and observing the fates of other CEOs whose profiles rose higher than company successes, such strategies may be embraced. What's needed, says Edelman, is to lead senior management through a risk/reward analysis and proffer a strong communications vision that directly corresponds to the bottom line.

General Electric chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt provides an example of reward. Through the "Ecomagination" program, GE will dedicate considerable resources to clean up the environment and promote energy-efficient products while making money. Not only does this program address a longstanding business problem for GE (it has spent $122 million in lobbying, PR, and legal fees over the past 15 years to avoid calls to cleanup sites), it meets a number of important trust factors. And, once again, GE is number one on Fortune's "Most Admired Companies" list.

US Olympic skier Bode Miller's tale is one of risk. Before the Games, Miller was heavily hyped. In addition to developing a rock-star persona, grand predictions were made about his performance. In the end, it all worked against him when his actual performance, reputation, and possibly his job went downhill.

Lisa Davis is a consultant and former communications director for AARP. Each month, she'll look at a different aspect of counseling senior management from an in-house viewpoint. E-mail her at lisa.davis@prweek.com.

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