In this preoccupied, post-transparent age, being a CEO takes more than a top business school degree, a well-cut suit and an air of sophistication. Yes, the corner office might shelter a competitive genius with years of management chops, but that person also needs a C-suite executive’s must-have accessory: a PR pro as partner.
Public relations professionals can give CEOs real-time tutorials when it comes to management of their brand—their own and their company’s, which often go hand in hand. On the positive side, think of the contributions that the late, great Evelyn Lauder, senior corporate vice president at the Estée Lauder Cos., and her husband, Leonard, its longtime CEO, made to their company by being good leaders and good citizens. Or, on the negative side, picture WorldCom and Bernie Ebbers blurring in criminal stew. Two extremes, but lots of lessons to be learned.
Without a PR-executive-slash-style-maven planning the right messages and messaging, serving up the sizzle to the good steak (financial performance, strategic stewardship, some reasonable personal habits), there’s a grave danger of risking everything from share price to employee motivation. Because without PR, if the public senses that a brand isn’t representing good values, confidence could take a nosedive.
Here are four ways that today’s CEOs can avoid a serious case of brand damage:
Have a heart. We all know that society is looking for leaders who share their values, to whom they can connect, who have a sympathetic (yet steady) hand to manage a workforce and public raw from too many gaffes. One great example: Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who “delivers happiness” daily to the delight of not only shoe fetishists but also his loyal employees (who enjoy some of the best perks and one of the friendliest working environments around). Have you noticed how darn much good PR the man gets?
Remember that every word counts in large amounts. With the instant access of media today, freedom of speech can bite you squarely in the butt. Need I remind anyone of BP CEO Tony Hayward, who infamously said this in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill?: “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.” That shot (not the right stuff for his company, its stakeholders or the community at large), heard round the world, was a fatal one. After public outcry over such a self-centered statement, Mr. Hayward was rather quickly shown the door. Says my brilliant colleague Andrew Benett, global CEO of Arnold Worldwide and global chief strategy officer of Havas Worldwide: “When a CEO’s actions or statements attract more attention than their company’s, it’s a fine line. In some instances, it can greatly enhance the value of the company, and in others it can have damaging effects. The difference is often the CEO’s ability to understand and manage their own personal brand.”
Be the brand. Many of the best managers of “brand me” are folks who not only represent their brands but also are them. Oprah built a megabrand on her name and character and favorite things, and she’s thinking of returning to TV to salvage her cable network. And the much eulogized Steve Jobs did not seem to live a day without inspiring, pushing boundaries or “thinking different.” Don’t forget Jay-Z, who has taken his music brand and applied it to everything from restaurants to apparel to ownership of the rebranded Brooklyn Nets—all sealed with his street-smart-intellectual-cool combo (to the tune of $450 million in personal net worth, according to Adweek).
Overcommunicate to staff. Be visible, be present and don’t be on vacation when staff cuts get announced, when retrenchment is in the air or when the troops need to see a leader at the helm. Social media gives us all new ways to be visible, humane and accessible; call in your PR coach to help you do just that.
Marian Salzman (@mariansalzman) is the Holmes Report's North America ThinkTank commentator.