Opinion: Help, my CEO's a lousy spokesperson!

Handling reticent or uncommunicative CEOs is part and parcel of a PR's day job. Maureen Tseng, director of client services at The Hoffman Agency, shares some tips on how to deal with or get around the problem.

Maureen Tseng

For public relations professionals, the CEO is a key component in any PR arsenal. After all, he or she represents the face of the organisation and a strong spokesperson can do wonders for the brand. Think Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or Jack Ma.

However, strong CEOs may not necessarily make great spokespeople. Having spent almost a quarter of a century in public relations with 20 years at an agency, I can safely say that of the CEOs I have worked with, about 5 percent are exceptional spokespeople, the majority range from passable to nondescript, and more than a few are downright awful.

One particular incident is seared into my memory. I was in my second year in PR and I had just joined a hot new start-up. A top tier national daily had agreed to interview the CEO after weeks of pitching. Senior correspondent X, a notoriously cantankerous reporter, turned up at the office ready for the interview, but to my horror, my CEO had vanished into thin air.

As a rookie PR executive, I was briefed that he was not great with media interviews, and hated meeting reporters (he thought they were always out to deliberately misquote him). However, I did not expect that he would get cold feet and disappear just before the interview. Needless to say, I had one deeply unhappy journalist and the prospect of months of damage control to look forward to with said newspaper.  

Perhaps you’ve not had to deal with disappearing CEOs, but it is not uncommon for PR professionals to be given less-than-stellar spokespeople to work with. Here are a few tips to get around the problem:

1) Practice makes perfect

Some individuals are just more articulate than others. If your CEO does not have a way with words and is open to it, media training and presentation sessions can make a difference.

Make sure you have a component in the training that focuses on messaging and communicating messages effectively, and then make them practise using the messages in different role play situations. Have them think of soundbites they are comfortable using that will add colour and punch to their interview.

The next step is to expose them to actual interview situations. The more media interactions your CEO is exposed to, the better he or she is going to be. Start with the easier targets, like the company newsletter or trade magazines that are very conversant with the organisation’s business. Spend time after the interview reviewing his or her performance and providing constructive comments on how he or she could have improved their answers.

The caveat of course is that the CEO is open to improvement. If they think they are hotshot spokespeople and do not need training, then you are facing an uphill battle. In this instance, consider other options, such as alternative spokespeople.

2) Build a pool of spokespeople you can count on

In the case of the runaway CEO, I had fortunately found the chief operating officer in another room to come to the rescue. He turned out to be a great choice as he was articulate and engaging. He became my go-to spokesperson for future media interviews.

Cast your net wide so that you have a stable of senior level spokespeople that you can turn to. Work with them to understand what they are passionate about and what they are knowledgeable in, then use them for different media opportunities.

At the end of the day, a company does not just boil down to the CEO, but to all the people within it who make it great. Having a pool of brand ambassadors also means that life will go on even if the CEO leaves for greener pastures.

3) Use alternative means to get your CEO featured

Given their tremendously busy schedules, it is often hard to pin CEOs down for interviews. If they are constantly MIA, it’s time to get creative. Consider using him or her in email interviews, which is a win-win situation for both the journalist and CEO.

Email interviews usually occur when the media are strapped for time and can’t do a face-to-face meeting. They will send a list of questions and the CEO will provide the answers. This is ideal because it lessens the chance of your CEO being misquoted or saying something that he or she shouldn’t be talking about. It also helps the journalist and they have quotes they can readily use for their stories.

If your CEO has a Twitter account and has an active presence, even better. Work with him or her to include some strong company nuggets in some of the tweets. It is critical that it’s coming straight from the CEO, so he or she would tweet in their own "voice" but a good Twitter persona helps with the CEO’s overall reputation. Media are also getting many of their stories from Twitter, so this is a good channel to consider.

In conclusion, CEOs come in all shapes and sizes, and some make better spokespeople than others. However, they are stewards of their company’s reputation and whether you like it or not, there’s no running away from media interactions. The best option is to be creative and opportunistic in helping them hone their delivery for PR success.

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