Despite the media’s merciless pursuit of British Gas chief executive
Cedric Brown, managers of Britain’s top companies have not all retreated
into their bunkers
When British Gas’ outgoing chief executive Cedric Brown caused a near
riot after a press conference arranged to announce the company’s
demerger, by attempting to evade the media pack, it was portrayed by the
media as the latest example of his failure to present the company in a
BG could have done without it, after 18 months of turmoil including the
damaging shareholder backlash at BG’s annual general meeting last year
over the size of Brown’s pay package. But many company chairman will
have witnessed the media lynching with a sense of unease.
In the wake of BG’s public battering there have been some murmurings on
the PR grapevine that top executives are becoming increasingly reluctant
to take public responsibility for their companies’ reputations.
Yet this week’s exclusive PR Week/NOP poll reveals that an overwhelming
majority of the public (92 per cent of respondents) believes that
company chairman should be more publicly accountable when there are
problems involving their company. Asked whether they thought senior
company executives do a good job representing their company at times of
crisis, just under half (49 per cent) said no compared with 40 per cent
who answered affirmatively.
Some PR advisers admit that there is perhaps an ‘understandable
tendency’ for top managers to be nervous about fronting their companies
when there is bad news to be reported. However, there are no indications
of any wholesale retreat by CEOs from the belief that fronting their
company, in good times and in bad, is part of the role.
Virgin, which is arguably the most personality-driven company, has no
doubts whatsoever about the value of Richard Branson as the front person
for the company.
‘The chairman owns most of the company so, in this instance, it is
natural that he should be high profile. Chairmen and chief executives
should take much more of a lead role and should see themselves as the
custodians of the brand and face down criticism,’ says Virgin corporate
affairs director Will Whitehorn. He says that one of the key
frustrations for many journalists is that they cannot get chairmen and
chief executives to comment on stories. He adds that the problem is
worse in Britain than in many other countries.
‘Too many British companies rely on messages being shuffled between
people. You have to face down criticism. If you don’t, you run the risk
of damaging your company.’
City editors on the nationals have mixed views about whether there has
been a retreat by CEOs from high profile-media activity. But there is
also a certain amount of ego involved, with those journalists who fail
to get through being perceived as the ones not doing the job, rather
than the chairmen and chief executives themselves.
As one City editor put it, without committing himself to a comment on
whether there had been a change: ‘I get paid to get through to these
people - whether I do or not is a reflection on how well I am doing my
Among the broadsheet City editors, there appears to be some consensus
that the Cedric Brown pay incident is unlikely to lead to any wholesale
retreat of CEOs behind their PR machines.
‘What happened to Cedric Brown was a unique thing. It was a tabloid
witch hunt,’ says one journalist. But he admits: ‘The treatment meted
out by the tabloids is so brutal that many may well think ‘well bugger
that, why should I bother’.’
The demise of personality-led companies, in marked contrast to the last
decade, appears to have less to do with reticence by companies’ top
brass about seeking publicity than with the attitudes of analysts and
City institutions which, having seen the fall out from the personality-
driven companies of the late 1980s, are now looking for strengths across
‘The 1980s cult of the individual saw business promoted through one
individual. People are now promoting managers across the board as
institutions and analysts are wary of one-man bands,’ says corporate
communications consultant Anthony Wreford.
Wreford also believes that chief executives can’t afford to retreat from
the fight. ‘I don’t think chief executives can pull back because no
amount of obfuscation by PR will quell institutional interest.’
City institutions have been less than happy about attempts by big
business to backtrack on the recommendations for greater transparency on
directors’ pay and packages made in the recent Greenbury Committee
report on directors remuneration. Indeed, they are stepping up pressure
on companies for full disclosure of directors’ remuneration.
British Airways acting director of PR and communications Peter Jones
doesn’t believe that the importance of the profile of a CEO has changed.
He points to Mori polls which show that a company’s corporate image is
driven by the perceived quality of management.
‘Our view has always been that the CEO has always been an essential part
of projecting the calibre of management and its style and personality,’
But both Wreford and Jones believe the move away from the personality-
driven company is an evolutionary stage in British business.
The development of wider public interest in business in the 1980s, which
was sparked by the policies of the Thatcher government, was the right
environment for the nurturing of ‘heroes’ in British business.
‘The whole 1980s thing was a novelty. It has changed the perception of
how we see life. It is more difficult now to impress people,’ says
While big personalities will certainly continue to exist in business,
the challenge for PR advisers, as Wreford puts it, is to present a
balanced view of a management team’s qualities.