Some consider a rogue CEO the worst nightmare for public relations. The CEO spouts off embarrassing public comments or commits unethical or illegal actions, then arrogantly rejects critics. Rather than wondering if critics might have a point, they haughtily discount the criticism and spurn advice.
Even if not technically illegal, CEO misbehavior can significantly damage the organization. Researchers analyzed 38 incidents of CEO questionable behavior, including reports of the CEO lying to the board or shareholders over personal matters, inappropriate sexual behavior, questionable use of corporate funds, objectionable personal behavior or abusive language, and offensive public statements. Researchers found that:
- The media can refer to the behavior for years,
- Market value generally drops,
- The misbehavior may lead to a loss of a major client, federal investigation, shareholder or federal lawsuit, or shareholder action such as a proxy battle.
One of the most stressful occupations, PR becomes additionally stressful with a rogue CEO regularly committing image-damaging blunders. Whether desirable or not, the CEO is the company’s de facto spokesperson and is often its public symbol. What can PR pros do when the CEO is a walking PR disaster? PR experts offer these recommendations.
Time for courage. You may be afraid to confront someone with a seven or eight-figure compensation package. Don’t be. It’s your job, Denise Kaufmann, director of North America client development for Ketchum, told PR News. Find confidence in your communications expertise. If it’s a public company, you may have to enlist the chairman or lead independent director in your efforts.
Document everything. Keep a detailed, written record of your conversations with the CEO and send him or her a copy, Kaufman says. Make sure there’s a clear record of when you offered fact-based strategy and advice, even if it’s ignored.
Seize control. Take direct media communication access away from your CEO and assume control over media communications, including media interviews. The CEO can post on social media, but only after you review content, advises Wendy Bulawa Agudelo at Axia Public Relations. “Steel yourself because this won’t be an easy battle to wage or win,” Agudelo says.
Suggest that PR manage social media. CEOs are busy running the company. Engaging in social media is a poor use of their time, says Parna Sarkar-Basu, founder of Brand and Buzz Marketing, LLC. The marketing/communications team can manage the CEO’s personal brand as it manages the corporate brand. “Make the executive look good, while he/she stays focused on the business,” says Sarkar-Basu.
Get PR analytics. PR measurement can provide the data that proves the CEO’s PR blunders are indeed PR blunders. You might need all the information possible: social media analytics, financial statements, stock price reports, media headlines and focus group data if possible. PR analytics will report a spike in media mentions, but a telling jump in negative sentiment. Present the CEO with facts, not emotions. “No one enjoys being told he’s done something wrong, least of all an ego-rich CEO. Therefore, you’ll need to let the data do the talking,” Agudelo advises.
Separate the CEO from the brand. The PR dilemma is exacerbated when the CEO’s image is intertwined with the brand. That situation is especially common when the CEO founded the company, such as Papa John’s founder and former CEO John Schnatter. In the past, Ryanair CEO Michal O’Leary was the public face of the Irish airline. He was the focus of every media event, dancing in a leprechaun suit, about to kiss a plane with a big grin on his face, or talking about charging for using toilets on the company’s planes, notes Jack Murray, CEO PR agency All Good Tales. No longer. Ryanair worked hard to develop a new public face.
Prepare a PR crisis plan. Include a strategy for responding to misbehaving CEOs in the organization’s PR crisis plan. Preparing a plan is just as essential as trying to avoid disasters. A quality PR crisis plan names a crisis response team with an assigned spokesperson and outlines how information will be communicated to internal and external stakeholders and the general public.
Bottom Line: PR pros dread chronically misbehaving CEOs. One of the most stressful PR challenges, such rogue executives cause tremendous PR damage. Such situations call for professionalism, courage and assertiveness.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.