Imagine this. You’ve just been named CEO at a large-cap company. It’s a natural step for you; you’ve run several progressively bigger corporations and you have a great track record. You’re smart, educated, experienced and terrific on your feet. The new gig will be tough— the corporation has been struggling a bit, blindsided by competitors who innovate faster. But you are confident and your message is upbeat as you take the microphone at your first press conference.
You deliver the company’s message and take questions. All of a sudden the picture darkens. A reporter asks which product—yours or a competitor’s— you use at home; you are visibly flummoxed and try to dodge the question. Your answer is lame: “I’m not sure because my spouse makes those decisions.”
The damage is done. You’ve lost control of the audience and both your reputation and the company’s reputation have suffered. A similar scenario occurred when John R. Walter was appointed president and COO of AT&T in 1996, writes Jeff Ansell in his new book, When the Headline is You: An Insider’s Guide to Handling the Media. AT&T’s plan was to introduce Walter to the media and convince stakeholders he’d lead the company decisively into the future. Instead, when a reporter asked Walter which long-distance provider he used, he became flustered and danced around the answer.
According to Ansell, a former announcer and broadcast journalist who now trains executives on dealing with the media, the gaffe had a catastrophic effect on the company. “Within hours of the exchange, AT&T’s market capitalization dropped $4 billion,” writes Ansell.
Could this happen to you? Ansell believes the answer is yes and, what’s worse, if it happened today, the gaffe would probably go viral. “People in the news are under pressure to always have right answers, worded just the right way, knowing they are a slip-of-the-tongue away from harming their share price or becoming a punch line,” writes Ansell.
Listed sat down with Ansell and other experts to spotlight common pitfalls faced by CEOs and other voice-of-the-company leaders as they communicate with key audiences. Whether talking to investors, media, regulators, employees or other stakeholders, senior executives and senior board members need to have a story to tell and be able to deliver it with authenticity. Ideally, they represent their company with high moral and ethical values and a commitment to transparency. The best spokespeople listen carefully to stakeholders, and know what’s being said on the street and online. They are empathetic. They aren’t arrogant. When facing a media ambush, they breathe deeply and let their value compass lead the way.
What follows is advice from experts on how leaders, and their support staff, can hone their skills as top-flight media darlings and arm themselves with tools to avoid common pitfalls.
Choose the star
As a first step, every company should have a very senior person—ideally the CEO—who is ready to talk about the company. The media is not going to be happy with an external spokesperson or a PR person, say the experts. “If the CEO is not the right person, you should be cultivating someone very high up. It is essential now. They want it from the horse’s mouth, from the key leaders,” says broadcaster and consultant Jane Hawtin, former host of the TV show Jane Hawtin Live. She’s now president of Toronto-based Amberlight Productions Inc., a media training company.
Have a story to tell
If you are the chosen one, you need to have a story to tell and find outlets to tell it effectively—not only to the media, but also stakeholders, investors and the public. “In the past, you could keep your head down and hope for the best. I can’t think of very many companies where that’s good,” says Hawtin. “Any company that deals with consumers at some level can’t continue to just do business,” she adds.
Two CEOs who have emerged as great stars on behalf of their companies, she says, are Michael McCain from Maple Leaf Foods—for his honesty and humility in the aftermath of the listeria contamination disaster that killed 23 people—and Galen Weston Jr., executive chairman at Loblaw Cos. Ltd.— for being seen as a regular good guy in his role as the public face of Canada’s largest grocery empire.
Prepare for ambush
As a general rule never, ever underestimate the press, say both Hawtin and Ansell. The media has the power to take out of context snippets of your finely crafted message and to cajole you to say the wrong things. “The media is manipulative, scheming and conniving,” says Ansell. “Concerned with finding the story and finding it first, reporters have little reluctance in asking antagonistic or intentionally misleading questions. If necessary, they’ll resort to embarrassing silences, dogged questioning and ambush tactics in order to secure the quotes they need.” For instance, a reporter might say something like, “you’re going to drive this company into the ground,” just to see what your reaction is going to be. “An untrained CEO might hold his or her breath and get angry,” says Ansell.
A smart executive team should also do some research before scheduled interviews. Not all journalists or media outlets have the same style or agenda. It’s easier to be quick on your feet when you already have a good idea of what’s coming.
Establish your value compass
In stressful situations, says Ansell, remember to breathe, as this will keep you calm. He also suggests listening carefully to a question, and asking for clarification if you need more time to think about your answer. Long before you get into a difficult situation, he suggests, establish what he calls your “value compass.” This means figuring out four things: what your true nature is (empathetic, honest), what standards you live by (credible, ethical, trustworthy), what your stakeholders’ emotions might be (anger, confusion) and how to enhance the wellbeing of stakeholders (be responsive and help educate). “Ask yourself, what am I made of? How do I want to come across? This brings tremendous clarity in stressful situations. Filter everything through that value compass. Be mindful of it. Trust is your currency,” says Ansell.
Over time, you can build muscle memory in dealing with difficult media questions. Beja Rodeck has seen executives remain poised in the face of an ambush. She was a senior media relations officer for many years at RBC and is now a consultant in Toronto. She remembers a TV interview where RBC senior executive Barbara Stymiest, now group head of strategy, treasury and corporate services, was suddenly put on the spot. The interviewer tried to take her off message by asking whether she thought she was going to be president and CEO Gord Nixon’s successor. Stymiest replied coolly that she was not thinking that and reiterated her original message and described the work that she was focused on. “A lesser interviewee would have had problems with that,” says Rodeck.
Be confident, but not a bully
Our experts believe it’s important to find a balance between having a firm grip on the company while not appearing arrogant. Apple CEO Steve Jobs fell off the high wire in mid-October, when he took cheap pot shots at his rivals. He bragged in a conference call that in the second fiscal quarter Apple sold more iPhones than Research In Motion sold BlackBerries (even though RIM has a later fiscal quarter end date). He teased that RIM’s smaller tablet computers (RIM’s new PlayBook is 7 inches, while the iPad is almost 10) would be “dead on arrival.” The court of public opinion was very quick to judge him, saying he lacked class and accusing him of taking the low road.
“I’m so sick of Jobs’ arrogance,” said one online comment. “The arrogance is unbelievable,” added another. “I lost a lot of respect for Steve Jobs,” said a third.
Jobs, as a guru in his field, can get away with far more than other CEOs. But this kind of behaviour does not play well for most executives and certainly not here in Canada, says Ansell. It can affect share price. “It is not becoming. Keep your nose clean. The next time Jobs screws up—and he will—there won’t be much goodwill in the bank account.”
Ansell advises CEOs to stay humble wherever possible. “Don’t be the great ‘I Am.’ Stay a little under the radar. Come up if there is good news.” It is crucial to listen more than you talk, and say thank you more than you’re welcome, he says. You have to have confidence as the leader, yes, but also empathy and humility to deal with media, shareholders and other stakeholders.
Be genuine, keep ears to the ground
If both you and the company act ethically on a consistent basis, the story is much easier to tell. “Genuineness has to be there, or they’ll smell it on you,” says Ansell.
This is becoming more important because of the bad behaviour of banks and other financial institutions, agrees Hawtin. “The public is less and less tolerant of companies that don’t have their ethical ducks in a row.”
It is also important for senior spokespeople to know what is being said about the company, and deal with issues that are likely to blow up. “In the last 10 years, what’s changed is the accessibility people have to information about companies,” says Ansell. “What’s happening in the blogosphere? There are people writing about your company who are sitting in the basement in their sweatpants. What they say can go viral.”
Armed and prepared, you won’t bow down to either professional reporters or citizen journalists, and you won’t let them rattle you either.
Celia Milne is a freelance writer in Toronto.