6 situations that call for a PR-savvy CEO


Informative article about the lack of PR-savvy CEOs working today in public relations agencies written by Dorothy Crenshaw, CEO and creative director of Crenshaw Communications. She has been named one of the public relations industry’s 100 Most Powerful Women by PR Week.

6 situations that call for a PR-savvy CEO

By Dorothy Crenshaw | Posted: March 30, 2015
A recent survey of 500 chief executives has both good news and some discouraging findings for public relations agencies. Though most CEOs see value in PR, 59 percent say they don’t fully understand the role and capabilities of public relations.Maybe PR professionals can do a better job of educating top executives, not only on the value of PR, but on the chief executive’s role in the process. A CEO with PR and media skills is an asset to any company, and one who shuns the press may undermine its stature.

Some are masters of the game. Look at iconic entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson or Steve Jobs, whose reputation lives on beyond his passing. Others must grow into the role, such as Deloitte’s Cathy Engelbert, the first female chief of a major accounting firm. For better or worse, a CEO is a steward of a company’s image and reputation.

Most chief executives aren’t like those celebrity CEOs, and they don’t necessarily embrace a role as brand spokesperson. Many lack the time, charisma, or commitment to deal with reporters.  They don’t trust the press, and they may be wary of social media and its risks. According to anotherstudy from CEO.com, 68 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies have no social media presence.

At a more basic level, they may be confused as to their role when it comes to media and constituency relations. For communicators whose CEOs aren’t the next Howard Schultz, it can be hard to offer guidance for the top exec. How well a CEO serves as a PR asset is informed by individual temperament, opinions and experience with journalism and social media.

However, there are times in nearly every company’s history that cry out for the involvement of the a PR-savvy CEO. Here are six. 

To announce a new strategy.  The chief executive will confer more authority—and generate more media attention—than other company officers for a new direction or shift in corporate strategy. This typically translates into valuable earned media coverage, which can then be used to articulate company direction for customers or partners through the megaphone of business or trade press and social media.

To launch a major new product. Technology company CEOs often announce new products at key trade shows or forums, even if it’s just to introduce a senior product executive who will then go through a features overview. The involvement of the top exec tells us this is a priority announcement and a move to watch.

To show leadership during a crisis. If the company’s reputation is in jeopardy, the CEO should be a visible and steadying presence. In a high-risk situation, a PR-knowledgeable chief executive may not necessarily open up to the news media, choosing to use social media instead to issue a fast response or promise of corrective action. A truly critical event usually requires a long-term commitment by the company chief, such as then-CEO David Neeleman’s “apology tour” in the wake of JetBlue’s 2007 grounding of flights and subsequent slide in popularity.

To advocate during government or regulatory scrutiny.  There are risks here, but in my experience, the PR-savvy CEO is typically the best advocate in times of regulatory review. A clear position on an issue, well articulated at the top, helps advance a company or industry viewpoint, and it offers crucial public support to allies, employees, and customers in what is often a lengthy PR battle.

To manage a corporate transition. It’s important to stakeholders that a new chief executive, or one who takes the helm in an environment of change or uncertainty, makes his vision clear. A skilled corporate communications head will use the inherent news value of the change to generate interview airtime, op/ed space, or owned content to communicate the company position, manage the transition, and pave the way for a new era of leadership.

To signal a cultural shift. The CEO acts as chief engagement officer with employees, particularly during a turnaround.  It’s not usually advisable to go public with internal communications, but there’s often no way to prevent leaks, and it’s best to be prepared. Sometimes it even helps a CEO’s position. That is why Marissa Mayer’s edict against telecommuting for Yahoo employees, which was disclosed in a leaked company document, inadvertently became a business case history. To Yahoo watchers, including the rank-and-file, Mayer’s memo was a metaphor for her larger battle to revitalize a bureaucratic and sleepy company culture, a task where she can use all the help at her disposal.

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Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO and creative director of Crenshaw Communications. She has been named one of the public relations industry’s 100 Most Powerful Women by PR Week. A version of this story appeared on the Crenshaw Communications blog and MENGBlend.