What Every Exec Should Know About Image Management

Last Updated Jun 28, 2011 9:02 PM EDT

Irene Rosenfeld, the CEO of Kraft, is a capable executive with over a quarter century experience in the food business. But when it comes to public relations, she and her company could use some help.

Rosenfeld oversaw the contentious takeover of UK's largest food company, Cadbury, in early 2010. The takeover was not only contested in the U.K. but also here at home. No less an investor that Warren Buffet, a Kraft shareholder, criticized the move.

Although the merger is long since over, there remain questions about Kraft's acquisition that some members of Britain's Parliament want answered. Ms. Rosenfeld refused a request to appear the special parliamentary committee. British MPs were furious. Suddenly, all the rancor of the hostile takeover of 2010 returned. There was even a talk of a boycott of Kraft products.

Ms. Rosenfeld defended her actions in an op-ed piece for Bloomberg/Businessweek saying that that she was "surprised" by the uproar. She insisted it was the job of those "closest to the business" in the UK to appear before Parliament. She even added, "There's been a lot of hype, and one of the challenges with the U.K. media is that they're not always accurate."

The first lesson of public relations is: do not pick a fight with those who buy ink by the barrel. Her decision to skip a Parliamentary hearing, despite her belief that "public relations is critical to Kraft," is not conducive to mending fences. "Appearing before the panel," she wrote, "was not the best use of my personal time."

Rosenfeld's actions play right into the hands of critics of Kraft. Rosenfeld's parliamentary snub makes her look small and Kraft look devious.

Public requests, whether from City Hall or the U.N., are a form of public theater. When public companies are called before governmental bodies, they need to respond as corporate citizens, not as public villains.

By no means are such appearances pleasant. In fact, at times they may even be downright insulting. No doubt there are elected officials on such committees who love to cut executives down to size and bash them in an effort to look as if they are acting on behalf of the public interest.

But participating in them when asked is part of what is required of senior corporate leaders, especially the CEO. No one carries more weight image-wise than the CEO so when she ducks the experience, it reflects negatively on the company, as well as its stakeholders.

Without a doubt, at times the theatricality of the moment outweighs its significance. Witness the U.S. Congress's periodic investigations into performance enhancement drugs in major league baseball. Some Congressmen (and they were men) used the hearings as an opportunity to act tough on television. The operative word being "act."

How to handle your appearance?

1. Keep prepared remarks brief and on point.

2. Argue the case, not personalities. Focus on facts not the person asking you questions. The person asking questions may not be likable but treat them with respect.

3. Act professional as well as patient. Pay attention to what others say, even when you disagree, maintain your composure.

4. Never, ever take the bait. Elected officials will look for ways to trip you up. Do not give it to them. Defend yourself and your company, but never seem defensive.

5. Radiate confidence. Act like you have been doing this for a while. Appear relaxed and in control of your emotions. It may even be appropriate to smile, especially when making small talk.

These rules are simple, and in fact ,so simple they might seem insulting. But that is just the point. Failure to abide by them may insult your reputation. It makes you look bad and your company worse. Such public appearances may seem a waste of time, but as a senior leader it is your obligation to your company and your credibility to appear. So do with style.

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image courtesy of World Economic Forum