Exec Comms Worst-Case

A damning magazine profile helped cost CNN's CEO Chris Licht his job. What can we learn from this cautionary tale.

Should a PR team be fired for a negative executive media profile if the executive didn’t listen to their expert counsel?

I don’t know all the details of what happened behind the scenes that led to The Atlantic’s 15,000-word damning profile of (now former) CNN CEO Chris Licht. I’m not here to point fingers.

As a communications leader who has managed the reputations of Fortune 500 CEOs and executives in the media for 25 years, I have devoured every news story exploring how this disastrous article came to be.

Insider sources indicate Licht, as CNN’s new leader, continued to push the story forward as it spiraled out of control over the course of a year.

The reporter had unfettered access to Licht (including during his morning workout) and 100 CNN employees—many who were not on board with Licht’s approach to leadership.

Executive visibility is critical for CEOs and leaders to build trust and credibility with stakeholders. But any executive should engage experienced communications professionals to achieve the best outcome. They will tell you:

1) Build trust with your employees first. A CEO brand is not just about external perceptions. Your employees are your brand ambassadors.

2) Don’t be a narcissist. Executives with effective brands dovetail their personal and professional stories to establish a compelling message that ladders up to their company’s brand narrative and centers around their customers.

3) Have a strategy. What are you hoping to achieve? Be clear on the narrative you’re hoping for and have a plan for telling an engaging story.

4) Get to know the reporter. Read the reporter’s past stories before agreeing to an interview. How are their interview subjects portrayed? Do you trust this person to objectively tell your personal and professional story?

5) Agree on boundaries. Establish with the reporter how many interviews will be granted, the length, and where they will take place. Do not conduct an interview during your morning workout unless you lead a fitness company.

6) Don’t assume it will be a puff piece. Anticipate what could go wrong. Are you ready to answer difficult questions? Is this the right timing for the company and for you as a leader? What are the vulnerabilities for your business over the next several months?

7) Don’t get too comfortable. Most reporters I’ve worked with are friendly, interesting and likable. I’ve worked with many reporters for years and keep in touch as their beats or careers change. It’s okay to enjoy the interview. But neither of you are there to make friends. They have a job to do. Assume everything is on the record and stay on message.

There are so many lessons to be learned from this story. My best advice to executives is to surround yourself with experienced executive communications advisors and listen to their counsel.


Kirstie Foster is a veteran corporate communications executive and a member of the Page Society. In 2022, she founded Foster Modern PR, LLC.

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