Anthony Hilton: Vodafone's Sarin needs image lift

It is some years now since Burson-Marsteller discovered that there was a correlation between the images of CEOs and their company. Indeed, studies have confirmed that more than half the reputation of a company is derived from that of its chief executive.

But what strikes me as unconvincing about this thesis is that logically,the easiest way to improve share price would be to ignore the company itself and focus instead on  the profile and image of its chief executive. Given that promoting an individual is far easier than promoting a company, corporate PR should by now have withered away. 

Clearly  this is not what has happened.  Establishing a good reputation for a company, and keeping it, requires more than hyping up its CEO. However, it remains true that a chief executive’s poor relationship with the press and the City can damage the image of his company.   Take the record annual losses unveiled this week by Vodafone and the shaky position of its CEO, Arun Sarin.  The Vodafone share price is pretty sick because the City says  the company lacks direction. But is this really the case, or is Sarin the problem? It could be the case that he is out of his depth, but it seems more likely that he simply fails to communicate effectively– either internally (where there has been a substantial amount of boardroom upheaval) or externally to investors.

Vodafone has one of the most sophisticated comms departments, headed by Simon Lewis, of any major company, but it has never succeeded in making Sarin as respected or liked as predecessor Sir  Christopher Gent. Perhaps that would be an impossible brief, given that Gent was a natural extrovert  whose leadership style was built around his high profile. But unless they turn around Sarin’s image, he could lose his job.

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