It was the former Barclays Bank chairman John Quinton who once said
that 40 per cent of his job was public relations.
His gut instinct about the role of business leaders has a curious
symmetry with the findings of a new study by Burson-Marsteller about the
role of the chief executive. Its survey of 2,500 opinion formers reveals
that they believe 40 per cent of a company’s reputation is accounted for
by the reputation of the CEO.
Those interviewed - CEOs, senior executives, analysts, business media,
headhunters and government officials - said that the most important CEO
qualities are communicating a clear vision of the company’s direction,
followed by increasing shareholder value. And three out of four said the
reputation of the CEO directly contributes to the company’s ability to
attract investment, recruit talent, and survive crises.
The survey confirms what many have long suspected through observation of
corporate fortunes over the years - that businesses, like political
parties, are increasingly dependent on the reputation of their
In a media-saturated age, increased visibility means increased
accountability and top executives are in the front line.
The anecdotes supporting this theory are legion. When Gerald Ratner bad
mouthed his own products in a public speech, the fortunes of his company
took a nose dive and he lost his job. When Guy Snowden lost his libel
case against Richard Branson, not only did he have to resign, but
G-Tech’s reputation took a battering and the episode put its involvement
in the UK lottery in question. Branson’s high reputation, on the other
hand, clearly enhances Virgin’s performance. A 1994 PR Week/NOP survey
revealed that a staggering 34 per cent of people said they would be more
likely to buy a Virgin product or service because of his reputation.
To most people in the communications business the B-M findings will seem
a statement of the blindingly obvious. But all too many CEOs have yet to
make the connection between the importance of reputation - the company’s
and their own - and the need to manage it.
Even in the face of all this evidence relatively few companies see PR as
a board level function. PR people are too often still treated as
messengers or firefighters, rather than as contributors to the
Part of the blame for that must lie with the PR industry for its failure
to provide tangible evidence of its value. But the message to CEOs from
this survey is clear: reputation is important, get it wrong and it’s
your job that’s on the line.