Memo to CEOs: Know what you don’t know about the media!

Why do CEOs disdain the press? Why do reporters find CEOs such unsatisfying sources and easy targets? And what can be done to improve this relationship?

Those were the thorny questions Bill Holstein took on in a Nov. 12 audio conference, put on by the Public Relations Society of America. Holstein, who has written business journalism for The New York Times, Chief Executive and BusinessWeek and has a book out, Memo to the CEO: Manage the Media (Don’t Let the Media Manage You).

The problems are plenty, says Holstein. They include:

  • CEOs who have come up through manufacturing or accounting or engineering but have not a whit of experience in media relations or mass communication.
  • Senior management teams full of lawyers and technocrats but entirely devoid of communicators, whose decision-making influence doesn’t begin until someone hands them a press release and says, “tell the world about this.”
  • PR pros who, though they’re skilled writers and can run a smooth press conference, haven’t acquired nearly the business acumen they need to participate usefully in strategic conversations.
  • PR agency people who say things the CEO wants to hear so they can hold onto the client. (And who, Holstein observes, often undermine internal PR folks, in order increase their own portfolio.)

And CEOs who are blind to their own blind spots. Holstein related a story about interviewing Bob Nardelli for Directorship Magazine when Nardelli was CEO of Home Depot. Nardelli stonewalled him on a question about a shareholder meeting that went bad, and the Q&A transcript made him look terrible. Holstein was friendly with Nardelli, and took the extra step of letting him revise his answer. Nardelli didn’t, and the stonewalling ran as-is: “I tried a new [meeting] format this past year. It did not work. … So I accept full responsibility for the change in format and acknowledge, based on the feedback, that we’re going to return (to the other format.) … We tried something. It didn’t work. It was my call. … Let me say again, I take full responsibility for this. It was not the right call, and we’re moving forward.”

That’s not what you want your CEO to sound like—but that’s often how he or she comes across.

The above malpractice is common practice, says Holstein. And as a result, companies take “no systematic approach to communications,” have no basis on which to begin a conversation with the media.

“Here’s what our company’s doing to make your world a better place” is the message every CEO ought to have at the ready for interactions with the media (and with every other stakeholder group). Instead, they prefer to “let the numbers do the talking,” and otherwise “sit and wait for disasters.”

But such a strategy is passé and only getting more so, says Holstein, who points to three trends that he hopes will inspire CEOs to take a more intelligent, proactive approach to media relations:

  1. The rise in shareholder activist coalitions like the union-backed Wake Up Wal-Mart and Stop Wal-Mart Now, that forced the retail behemoth to significantly change the way it does business. These coalitions go after directors, who are fearful of liability and “easy nuts to crack” compared to more brazen company executives. If they can be influenced, the management team naturally follows. A good reputation in the media can ameliorate shareholder activism.
  2. Social media means the company is in the “eye of the storm every hour, every day, 24/7, around the world,” Holstein says. So it’s not only important to develop good relationships with reporters, there are bloggers and other nontraditional citizen journalists to think about. Communication is on a quarterly basis no longer. “Everbody is talking to everybody else all the time,” and if there are 100 bloggers covering your company, you’d better be in constant communication with at least the most influential five, Holstein recommends.
  3. Internationalization. Even CEOs who have a well-oiled media relations strategy in the U.S. are increasingly getting 55 to 60 percent of their sales offshore. “I’m not aware of many companies who have been able to replicate and adapt their communication strategy everywhere they are.”

Readers, what’s the state of your executives’ relationships with the media—and what factors have been influencing those relationships in recent years. Let us hear from you. Write to [email protected].

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