The Fearful CEO (or the Branson Effect)

Even though study after study shows the positive effect a likable CEO can have in the success of a company and how he or she can put a face on a company’s values and attitudes as no other person can, PR pros increasingly face a challenge of getting some of their client CEOs in the media spotlight.

Some have a strong entourage that will only grant an interview with the most elusive and sought-after journalist, shunning the best media along the way. These handlers care for the CEO as if he or she were a rock star or Oprah Winfrey, and their excuses for ignoring media requests fall flat. “He doesn’t have the time” (well, think again, CEO duties should include communications). Or “That outlet is not worthy of our CEO” (definitely not, that outlet is one of the most respected and powerful in the country, and your CEO is just a country manager of one of many companies).

Execs traveling to foreign countries can present other challenges. For example, a global sales VP thinks he deserves the best coverage available (but has no story to tell). Or a global logistics VP doesn’t allow his own communications people in the room during an interview because the room is “too small” (if the room’s too small, maybe you should rent a bigger place). Or a global finance VP refuses to have or pay for a translator (journalists have to be bilingual but execs do not?). 

Another factor that can make CEOs gun-shy is control. When exposed, CEOs and execs are at risk. “Can the journalist send the questions in advance?” “Can we edit the article prior to publication?” “Can we guarantee there will be no problems?” (Sigh.)

But on the other side of the coin, there are some CEOs that can handle interviews, can always be available, and can be terrific storytellers. And many of us in PR would just die to somehow be able to take that energy and willingness and infuse it into the fearful CEOs.

And a few of our clients surprise as storytellers. Case in point: Here in Argentina, we recently had an interview with top journalist Florencia Donovan and the CEO of Clorox, Donald Knauss. Mind you, the young lady had done her part of the job researching fully on the business of Clorox. But out of curiosity, she asked about his personal life, and Don spoke at length about his experience as a U.S. Marine and how what he learned in this elite military unit could be applied to management. Storytelling at its best! The few CEOs everyone remembers (Branson, Jobs and Welch — and remember Lee Iacocca?) always had a great story like this to tell.

But let’s not put all the blame on the C-suite. Somehow, PR pros should do better in conveying to both companies and to CEOs the incredible advantages of a dynamic communicative CEO, who not only doesn’t fear media exposure, but looks for it. Who has a fresh, entertaining story (that of his company and his own). Who knows how to deliver it. And who knows how to set an example and lead.

This CEO is highly needed in our “noisy” times.