Have CEO Super Hero PR Efforts Lost Their Sizzle
Having been a long-time advocate of using your CEO as the logical and best spokesperson for the company, we have begun to have our doubts on the validity of this approach given the challenges of the past few years. All of the governmental and media “uncovering of” the questionable actions of companies and their management drew us back to reread several of C. Wright Mills’ books – The Power Elite, White Collar: The American Middle Classes and The Causes of World War III.
But unless you studied a lot of sociology as we did in college there is little reason you would have encountered Mills’ works. He would never considered a mainstream business or communications author…just a thought-provoking, excellent writer. While we found his work both insightful and controversial, we were never certain whether he was a genius or was working from the other side. For some reason we revisited his writings of the ‘60’s.
Perhaps it was because he foretold the dangers distancing decision-makers from the rest of us and the danger of creating super-heroes. Everyone was finding a reason to chastise and hold strong control and command executives responsible for everything that was wrong with business and our global economy.
First it was the splatcom era. Then came the death-defying nosedive of the stock market. Finally the government and media made it appear as though every CEO was either Atila the Hun or Captain Kidd or a combination of the two.
The backlash toward presidents and CEOs started as a mere ripple. It has turned into a raging tsunami hell-bent on sweeping the shoreline clean of any debris in its path.
Have we done such a great job that these executives actually believe their press clippings?
The concept of a business superstar CEO is a relatively new phenomenon started with lee Iaccoca when he took a token salary of $1 a year to rescue Chrysler. Steve Jobs of Apple and a few other turn-around artists made similar sacrifices for the “good of the firm” while being handsomely rewarded by stock options and benefits programs.
“Neutron” Jack (Welch) went from being a teardown and rebuild CEO to a global model for all executives. He might have remained a business icon and role model if his wife’s divorce filings might have pointed out that he was receiving more than what many consider his fair share following his retirement. Suddenly he became the poster child for executive excess.
His respected replacement at the helm of GE has managed to support Welch while distancing himself from his embarrassments. Guiding the global giant through perilous times, he has already gained the nickname of ‘Teflon” Jeff (Immelt). “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap had a short stint as an investor’s dream as a CEO but has had a spectacular fall to disgrace. Bernie Ebber, a “good-old-boy” took a sleepy Southern telecom company and turned it into the world spanning communications firm – Worldcom. With his departure a quieter, more low-key John Sidgmore stepped in to guide the rebuilding of the firm or at least hold the helm steady until a new CEO could be found.
As recently as 20 years ago chief executives typically worked their way up through the ranks and labored in relative obscurity. But the changing instant on, instant access and instant success global environment (especially here in the US) wanted dynamic corporate leaders. They wanted men or women who could miraculously drive innovation, competition and profits.
Public relations have done an outstanding job of building the aura of our firebrand business heroes and heroines. Perhaps too good.
We have gone through a period of developing larger than life images for CEOs that have overshadowed their firms. The techniques have been used successfully for Adelphi, AOL/TimesWarner, Enron, Tyco, Xerox, HP, Disney and hundreds of other firms.
With business credibility under severe scrutiny, we need to question the validity of building the company’s image and position around the CEO. Perhaps we would be better off if we took U.S. historian Daniel J. Boorstin’s observation to heart: “Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused. Yet we confuse them every day, and by doing so we come dangerously close to depriving ourselves of all real models. We lose sight of the men and women who do not simply seem great because they are famous but are famous because they are great. We come closer and closer to degrading all fame into notoriety.”
Using our creative best efforts we have done an outstanding job of proving Boorstin correct when he wrote, “The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name.”
While these celebrity bosses were rising we all know PR people who have taken credit for helping mold and promote their images. But when they are called before congressional committees and grand juries, indicted and jailed; public relations people are seldom painted with the same brush. That is usually reserved for their accountants and their lawyers.
Other than a feeling of relief, the fact should be of little consolation to our profession. While Oscar Wilde wrote in a letter in 1882 -- “The Americans are certainly hero-worshippers, and always take their heroes from the criminal classes.” -- it would seem that we helped focus too much attention on the individual rather than the underlying organization and its people.
We believe it is time to refocus our efforts and activities for our companies and our clients.
Admittedly, star or hero building is both rewarding and an adrenaline rush. But more and more executives realize that business is a team sport, not a one-person show. As a result, public relations people need to focus their talents and expertise helping management promote and build trust – inside and outside the organization.
Some of Mills’ observations and forecasts are no longer valid. Rapid technology advances have broken down boss/employee, customer/supplier and similar barriers.
When he died in 1962, computers still occupied large rooms and cost millions of dollars, you talked to a bank clerk when you wanted to obtain cash at a bank, telephone operators were available to assist you and written communications were sent through the company mail or the post office.
While Mills explored the impact of industrialization and centralized control in The Power Elite and White Collar, he couldn’t foresee the move to knowledge-based industries and the importance of the internal organization. This shift -- and recent events -- have made it important that we reexamine what is good/acceptable management style and how we as professionals project the public image of business.
These are the areas where public relations people need to focus their attention and assistance in the years ahead.
Time of Change
The internal structure of large organizations is changing. Senior management and boards of directors are focusing on their core competencies rather than every aspect of the value chain. Hierarchical command-and-control management is also (sometimes begrudgingly) being forced to change to one of teamwork. Enlightened CEOs realize that their competitive success depends less on physical asset ownership and more on their ability to develop and manage human capital – people are more important than things.
A challenge for public relations is to help develop and carry out programs that encourage people to not only expand their own knowledge base but also share it within their department and across the organization. Programs that promote mutual trust and mutual destiny are difficult to articulate and even more difficult to promote. Lone stars will have to be shown the benefits and strengths of the team.
Public relations – especially in the business community – will face unique challenges as the hounds of increased government regulation nip at our heels. We are going to have to help senior management understand the importance of the team and promote that interrelationship inside and outside the organization. While we work to build product and market success for the company we will also have to continually promote the fact that responsible teams produce profits that are good for all of our society.
It may not be as much fun as creating super heroes/heroines, but it will do a lot to help reverse people’s irreverence and skepticism of business. It will require more creativity in your job. It will also enable you to be more measured by your actions beyond your boss’ clippings.