There’s an old joke about the shortest distance in Washington being between a microphone and an ambitious politician. We see the scenario daily in national and even local politics — so many media darlings, so many microphones.
But the same punchline can be used in business for aspiring or current members of the C-suite. Usually, it’s not the CEO who spends more time than he should in building a public image; it’s the people who want to be the CEO.
If executive function exists to deliver results and value to the shareholder or other key stakeholders, what role do we as communicators and PR professionals play in ensuring the right levels of exposure for the executive team? What answer is accretive to company results?
Building Brand Confidence
The primary reason to profile or participate in external media for most executives is to build confidence in your brand. If you want to show the markets who you are, nothing can humanize your brand like a skilled executive who knows their stuff and exudes a genuine like for customers and clients. This is certainly true in a crisis, but also true as you communicate and build confidence in the basic products and services your company sells. An appearance on CNBC or in a major daily can do a great deal to signal that your company is filled with competent leadership beyond the perfunctory earnings calls generally hosted by the CEO and CFO.
Developing the Future CEO
Another key reason for creating regular and meaningful media exposure for the company’s leadership team is to develop skills needed in the CEO succession chart. You don’t want an executive’s first appearance on a major broadcast to be welcoming them to their new role as CEO. Practice makes perfect. If your company is large enough, you are likely using internal broadcasts to develop camera and broadcast presentation skills without the glare of a global audience. Most companies don’t have this luxury. Work closely with your HR function and CEO to understand the highest potentials in the C-suite (and a layer below). Develop media savvy in the same way you develop leadership skills. Be intentional and include it in your company’s talent planning assessments.
Here’s where it gets a little dicey, and you’ll want to polish up your diplomacy and influencing skills. Ambitious executives, no matter how tight the team, can become jealous of the perceived over-exposure of a peer. It’s just human nature. It’s your job to use the executive talent in a smart way to tell your company’s story. Don’t contribute to the darker side of internal politics by favoring one executive over another. That said, you should only be using the best talent. Not every executive who is successful in his discipline will be successful in a high-pressured Bloomberg or WSJ interview. Coaching and practice can help develop these skills. Make sure the C-suite understands that objective before you inadvertently create tension for your executive team based upon one executive’s exposure over another’s.
We all know the reality TV stars who are famous for being, well, famous. We work with executives like this, too. Consider the executive who joins multiple high-profile boards to gain exposure; it’s hard to imagine that those boards or the executive’s company are well served. When you see someone on the team who has clearly deployed his own publicity machine, it’s your role to nip it in the bud. Gently remind them that it’s your job to set up the “air traffic control” system for executive exposure, and it’s theirs to trust you to manage the tarmac. The only other person who has authority over it is the CEO. Gain C-suite ownership in this concept and avoid unnecessary risk to your company.
Save the Selfies for Instagram
Another role you have as the chief communications officer or PR firm support is to make sure everyone understands the motivation behind all this face time. It’s not about making one person famous — no matter how telegenic they are. Ensure media engagements are designed to support your overall business objectives. What growth story needs to be told? What crisis needs a more credible spokesperson? Do you want to demonstrate your global reach? Does the diversity of the leadership team or board tell a story that will help you attract a more diverse workforce? These are all business needs, not the needs of individuals or people with sky-high ambition. Allow business needs to be your guide for managing the exposure of the C-suite and your highest potential executives. Communicate why and how you are doing this, and make sure everyone knows that your culture drives business decisions, not decisions based on ego and ambition.
Ambition is a Good Thing
While it might seem that I’m raising flags against the ambitious, the opposite is actually true. The ambitious executive is more likely to be willing to take the risks of engaging with the media. The ambitious executive will work harder to be ready and present a strong, credible image for your company. The ambitious person will do their homework to be flawless in an interview. They will also work harder to correct mistakes made in earlier interview performances. Use ambition, channel it. Use it to tell a better story for your company.
Ultimately, it’s your job to help ambitious executives (and executives-to-be) make good choices. If you’re doing it right and you have their trust, these choices will put the company and the executive in the best possible light. Here are a few of my time-honored favorites: authenticity over slick and polished; humility over hubris; and, when it comes to on-camera interviews, solids over stripes. The basics still apply, but let’s be real about the dynamics of using executives you need to build and repair company brand.
Mike Clement is managing director of Strait Insights, LLC in Charlotte.