Economic tumult forces CEOs to consider value of visibility

The economy has impacted CEO visibility in two significant ways, according to corporate PR pros. Some CEOs have retreated, in part because they don't want to expose themselves as a media target.

The economy has impacted CEO visibility in two significant ways, according to corporate PR pros. Some CEOs have retreated, in part because they don't want to expose themselves as a media target. Others, like Kraft Foods' CEO Irene Rosenfeld, have increased their visibility as they look to take a leadership position in their respective sectors.

"People don't trust leaders who run for cover when the going gets tough," says Perry Yeatman, SVP of corporate affairs at Kraft. "Since the downturn began, she's been out there more than ever, with the audiences that matter most to our continued success - employees, consumers, customers, and investors."

Kraft has faced a number of challenges, including slowing sales and its fight to acquire Cadbury. Yet Rosenfeld continues to let employees in on the company's plans via internal social media tools, town hall meetings, and even small group discussions. She has also increased her external outreach, including first-time public appearances at Davos '09 and the World Business Forum (where she was one of the few female keynotes).

"In uncertain times, people want to know the company has a plan to keep winning," says Yeatman. "One of the best ways to deliver that message is through direct communication from a leader."

That sentiment is echoed by other corporate communications executives, at both publicly and privately owned companies.

"I cannot imagine a time when our CEO [Kenneth Feld] would not be at the forefront of communicating all the important things our company does," says Stephen Payne, VP of corporate communications at Feld Entertainment, a producer of live family entertainment. Yet there have been a number of CEOs who have recently become more visible in the media in a move designed to take advantage of competition that has laid low, even as the economy shows signs of recovery.

"Mark Hurd at Hewlett-Packard has taken advantage of the void of leadership coverage in the tech sector," says Vickee Adams, SVP and US director of media relations at Hill & Knowlton, which counsels HP on executive communications. "His competition has been relatively quiet. But he has been out there, talking about business and reporting solid quarterly earnings."

Dealing with the risks
That doesn't mean taking a leadership stance isn't without risks, particularly in sectors like finance that have been at least partially blamed for global economic woes. As an example, Adams cites Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who in November apologized for his company's role in the financial crisis and then announced it would partner with Warren Buffett by providing $500 million in support to small business owners.

"It's a terrific program and an idea no other investment bank has launched," Adams notes. "But because he was out there first, [Blankfein] got a lot of criticism. But leaders should be able to stay in the kitchen and take the heat." That's a key attribute, she adds, because the program will potentially help build goodwill toward the company that will repay Goldman Sachs when times are better.

While some CEOs are pushing a leadership position, the economy has made others focus on internal engagement, says Gene Grabowski, SVP at Levick Strategic Communications.

"As the cult of the CEO grew in the '90s, egos became involved and CEOs spent too much of their time and energy communicating with the outside world and news media," he explains. "Now there is a much better appreciation of first speaking with your employees."

Grabowski says that shift is part of a larger corporate communications trend that recognizes CEOs' need to think of their visibility as a strategic tool, rather than about stroking their ego - whether for internal or external audiences.

"A CEO must lead," he says, "but also understand that his or her visibility is in finite supply and must be used wisely."

CEOs in the LimelightJamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase
One of the few true leaders in the financial services sector, says Adams. He recently wrote an Op-Ed in The Washington Post that argues banks, including his own, should be allowed to fail regardless of size Richard Branson, Virgin
Whether talking about his various charities or space travel, he is the type of CEO that loves attention, say PR pros. "But I think even he has pulled it back a bit," says Grabowski Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric
"He isn't out there all the time," says Adams, "but when he is, he has something positive and interesting to say"

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