Last Updated Oct 2, 2008 7:41 PM EDT
For too long, American CEOs have concluded that it is impossible
to engage with the media in any meaningful way. The usual argument is that the press
is unfair, prejudiced, and always a negative factor. As such, most chief execs adopt
a policy of benign neglect toward the media.
But that strategy no longer works. Just look at the ousting of
former Home Depot CEO Robert Nardelli, whose $200 million-plus compensation
package led to a very public labor union fight and his eventual downfall. Or
look at the slaughtering of Wal-Mart's brand by environmentalists,
religious leaders, and consumers. The media landscape has changed and CEOs need
to adapt – quickly. Here we'll show you how to rework your
PR plan and manage the media – so that the media don't
Relationship with the Press
Goal: Understand how
the media has changed and what it means for you.
There have been at least two major structural changes in how and
why the media cover companies: the first is related to the rise of
shareholder coalitions, and the second is the continued advance of
Internet-based communications. These two trends are catching many in top
management by surprise. Organized labor, academics, and religious organizations
are appealing to investors in their attacks on CEOs and boards. Blogs are
succeeding in generating news coverage in the pages of major newspapers rather
than vice versa. Sites like YouTube and Facebook have intensified demands for
immediacy and transparency that didn’t exist even five years ago.
To survive, much less thrive, in this new climate, CEOs need to
understand that communications can no longer be a sideshow — it must
be built into a company’s DNA. That means business leaders
increasingly need to view every move in terms of how it makes the company look.
Remember the New York Times rule: Ask yourself, “If I make a
certain decision, how would it look if it appeared on the front page of the New
Add a Personal Touch
As CEO, you’re going to have to take a more
personal role in media management. Take a cue from JetBlue CEO David Neeleman, who
wrote an email of apology to every single customer affected by the extensive weather-related
flight delays in February 2007. JetBlue put a videotaped apology on YouTube, with Neeleman saying,
“It won’t happen again.” Then he appeared on
David Letterman, and that segment was also placed on YouTube. This is a
particularly good example of how a CEO personally led a PR effort and used a
variety of media vehicles for more effective communication.
Select a Top Advisor
Goal: Find an
experienced professional who understands the business.
One of the root causes of a company’s media problems
is that CEOs often have put the wrong people in place to manage the PR function
because they have difficulty identifying the right set of skills. Most PR
personnel know how to write press releases, manage a corporate website, and
arrange interviews and briefing sessions. But many lack deep understandings of
business and how global and technological trends will affect a company.
Here are some guidelines for how to fill and structure the job
of the top communications advisor:
Choose someone based on seniority and experience. Instead
of focusing on who merely “gets ink,” look for someone who has
a history of helping companies communicate a winning message.
Look for a much broader skill set than simply media relations. Your PR manager needs the intellectual horsepower to discuss the future of the
company with top execs. Find someone who has a savvy understanding of the
business and industry at large.
Have the top communications person report directly to you. Often PR people report to other execs like corporate counsel or the chief
marketing officer, who either block direct access to the CEO or else filter the
message. Be the first in line.
Bring the communications advisor to the table when the
executive team makes decisions. If the head of PR isn’t present
when major company decisions are made, you’re missing the key step of
asking, “How is this going to sound to the outside world?”
An Experienced Strategist
When Coca-Cola gave Tom Mattia the job of senior VP of
communications, the company structured the job so that it had clout. It helped
that Mattia had 35 years of experience in brand management, media relations, advertising,
and online marketing. But CEO E. Neville Isdell made sure that Mattia reported
directly to him and joined the company’s executive committee where
many critical decisions are made. Mattia’s position also includes: corporate
communications, public policy, employee communications, archive functions, corporate
responsibility, and seats on both the company’s Bottler Public Affairs Advisory Board and the Public Policy and
Corporate Responsibility Council.
Define the Story
Goal: Go on the
offensive and clearly communicate your company’s message.
One of the worst mistakes a CEO can make is falling victim to the
“airline syndrome” — only speaking to the media
in the event of crashes, disruptions in service, and other disasters. The
better strategy is for CEOs to project broader, positive messages about what
they are contributing to the American economy.
Start defining the story by outlining a set of issues that the
media pay attention to. The key is to first understand the public dialogue and
to position the corporate message in it, rather than the other way around. That
requires extensive reading, listening, and viewing to get a sense of the public
zeitgeist. Your broad mission statement should include these issues as well as
other, more tangible goals, such as penetrating certain markets or geographies.
Financial results are a part of the message but just a part.
Redefine Your Image
A remarkable example of shaping the message is the PR
turnaround that General Electric’s CEO Jeff Immelt achieved. The key
issue was GE’s dumping of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the
Hudson River. Jack Welch was once quoted as saying he would go to his grave
rather than cooperate with federal and state agencies to clean up the chemicals.
Immelt took a different tactic. He decided that helping to
create clean water around the world was a growth opportunity for GE. The
company engaged in a fully integrated image and communications program called “Eco-Imagination”
built around its eco-friendliness. Full page ads in the Wall Street Journal proclaimed: “Two-thirds of the world is covered in water. Shouldn’t
three-thirds of the world’s population be able to drink it?”
The company’s website extended the environmental message with a
headline declaring, “Delivering the Wind.” It noted that GE
delivered more than 1 gigawatt of wind energy to the U.S. in 2006, making it
the biggest supplier of that renewable energy source.
In short, Immelt took a complete negative and turned it into
Start a Dialogue with
Goal: Prevent the
creation of broad coalitions against your company.
Thought leaders in the PR field believe that rather than raise
the barricades against critics, CEOs need to engage them to learn what they are
thinking and planning. PR staffs should be doing ongoing risk assessments to
see what groups are considering targeting the company, and that information
needs to be in the CEO’s hands — early.
Kathy Bloomgarten, CEO of PR firm Ruder Finn, says that Novartis
CEO Daniel Vasella is a prime example of how a chief exec can engage in quiet,
genuine dialogue to prevent a PR disaster. Vasella awoke in his Swiss home about
three years ago to find a Greenpeace demonstration on his doorstep. Rather than
calling in the police, Vasella walked outside and asked to talk to the leaders
of the demonstration. He invited two of them inside for breakfast and
discovered that they were protesting a Novartis waste dump that he had never
heard about. He promised to look into it – and his cooperative style
ultimately helped him defuse the Greenpeace campaign.
What Not to Do
The Worst-Case Scenario
In the spring of 2006, a loose Internet-linked network of
groups coalesced into an anti–Wal-Mart force that quickly claimed 235,000
members, including labor unions, small business owners, environmentalists, and
religious leaders. It was targeting Wal-Mart for its healthcare policies and
for allegedly allowing crime to fester in its stores, among other issues.
Part of the problem was that Wal-Mart had for years
celebrated its small-town culture and values. That was helpful in penetrating
rural America, but hurt the company when faced with the predominantly liberal
New York-based media and the host of religious and labor groups that also had
clear social agendas. By the spring of 2008, the coalition had more than
Even though CEO Lee Scott began demonstrating greater
sensitivity to the coalition of critics, huge damage had been inflicted. The
retailer has had trouble expanding into affluent Northeastern urban areas.
Legislation was introduced in Maryland mandating how Wal-Mart should treat its
employees. And an effort by Wal-Mart to expand into financial services ran into
a political firestorm that forced it to relent. Even if Wal-Mart is now taking
the most sophisticated communications measures, it could take years to recover
the brand equity it had a decade ago.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Adapted
from Manage the Media (Don’t Let the Media Manage You by
William J. Holstein. Copyright 2008 Harvard Business School Publishing
Corporation; All rights reserved.