Media Relations: Study says CEOs need protection from press

Matthew de la Haye deals with Boeing's recent reputation woes with a hard-nosed efficiency. Three times in our conversation he refers to Boeing's 'ethics issues' before quickly reminding his questioner that those issues are 'now by and large behind us'.What do you cover?Media relations chiefs at FTSE 100 companies can expect to draw six-figure salaries but must ensure their CEOs are protected from 'ill-informed' and 'aggressive' financial journalists, according to a survey.

Media heads at 18 FTSE 100 firms were asked by recruitment firm Watson Helsby about the duties of corporate senior media personnel and the challenges posed by dealing with the press.

Their responses pointed to an increasingly 'demanding and complex media environment'.

Watson Helsby chief executive Nick Helsby said the report, entitled 'Managing the unmanageable?', indicated that although CEOs were reported to be more willing to engage with the press, this was counteracted by a 'new breed' of hostile and aggressive business journalists.

'For some years now there has been a sense that business is being challenged and scrutinised more and more,' said Helsby.

'Editors are under more pressure to keep costs down, so they have fewer staff, but they are also being asked to increase coverage.

'This has led to an increasing trend to write about generic, cross-sectoral topics to cover up for a lack of in-depth understanding of certain sectors.'

The report goes on to say that this behaviour has also led to 'a growing number of more aggressive financial and business journalists', who can become 'angry and unpleasant' when they don't get what they want.

But conversely, media chiefs said this had produced an environment where CEOs prefer to be seen as accessible and media-friendly in the hope they will be treated more sympathetically by the press.

Over 70 per cent of media heads said their CEO readily engaged with the media as it was seen as 'an important and unavoidable part of doing business'.

Helsby cited the example of Wm Morrison supermarket chairman Sir Ken Morrison, not particularly known for engaging the media, who came in for a barrage of unfavourable press recently ahead of the firm's AGM.

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Boeing spent most of 2004 recovering from chairman Phil Condit's resignation, which followed revelations at the end of the previous year that the company had spied on rival Lockheed Martin to win US Air Force contracts.

This March, Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher, who had done much to rebuild the firm's reputation after the Lockheed scandal, was forced to resign after revelations of an affair with a female executive.

Throughout these controversies, Boeing has been locked in a seemingly endless battle with the aircraft manufacturing industry's only other serious player, European rival Airbus. While Boeing's 'point-to-point' vision of how air passengers will fly in the future has been symbolised by its 257-seat 787 Dreamliner, Airbus's 555-passenger 'super-jumbo' A380 has stolen much of the limelight in recent months. It is a battle that has even involved the US government and the EU in a row over subsidies to both Boeing and Airbus.

But if the 41-year-old Englishman is under pressure, he hides it well.

An executive type with a penchant for popular Americanisms such as 'the bottom line', de la Haye consciously keeps his answers brief, giving the distinct impression that longer sentences will reveal a great deal more about what he really thinks.

De la Haye grew up in and around Gatwick airport. His father, John de la Haye, had helped to set up the company that later became British Caledonian Airways. But despite having 'a bit of kerosene in my veins' he did not want to work in the aerospace business.

'I wanted to be an architect but couldn't add two and two together,' he says. 'There was a bit of boss's son syndrome going on so I was anxious to distance myself from all that.'

Instead, de la Haye spent the mid to late 1980s working first as a copy boy for the International Herald Tribune in Paris and then, somewhat ironically, as a PR executive for British Caledonian and now-defunct Brighton PR agency Eventer. It was in 1992 that he got his 'big break' working for Turner Broadcasting's CNN, the international news network with a heavy US bent.

Joining CNN in the year after the Gulf War as EMEA PR manager, de la Haye frequently had to square the difficult circle of the channel's US-centric editorial line with a drive for distribution growth through satellite networks. Areas traditionally hostile to the US, such as the Middle-Eastern countries, were a particular problem, says de la Haye: 'It wasn't unknown for us to "go dark" in places like the Middle East when we ran something people didn't like. A lot of that job was about building a domain of trust.'

He then spent two years in New York at Ruder Finn and four at Lucent Technologies, before joining Boeing in 2000, where his time is split between London and Chicago.

De la Haye freely admits that Boeing's reputation has 'justifiably' taken some hits. 'I tell my team that getting good media coverage should be our lowest expectation. I am as interested, if not more so, in building trust on a personal level.'

Boeing's rivalry with Airbus, he insists, is 'used as a pawn when journalists write about wider transatlantic problems'. But he cannot quite resist trickling some scorn at Boeing's rival, pointing out that most of the A380 coverage has actually spoken quite positively of Boeing's point-to-point strategy.

'There is no question that the A380 is a fantastic achievement from an engineering perspective,' de la Haye says. 'But the 787 Dreamliner is about enhancing passenger experience rather than putting them on a fatter tube. If you think there is going to be a McDonald's, a bowling alley and a spa on an Airbus A380, I look forward to that - but I doubt it will happen.'


1992: PR manager, EMEA, CNN

1994: Vice-president, global public affairs group, Ruder Finn

1996: Director of communications EMEA, Lucent Technologies

2000: Vice-president of international communications, Boeing

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