When I was a journalist, I pretty much believed that everyone had an obligation to answer my questions. In the grand tradition of 60 Minutes, people were assumed to be guilty unless they could come out of an interview unscathed. Back then, mainstream media was a major conduit to a company’s stakeholders so, like it or not, CEO’s often had to put themselves under the media spotlight. But things have changed. Now, there are many more ways to connect with stakeholders. And frankly, reporters just aren’t as scary as they used to be.
Since crossing over to the dark side, I have worked with dozens of CEO’s to help them through both positive and negative media interviews. Less than a handful looked forward to the experience. A lot of my work is crisis communications and, contrary to conventional wisdom, presenting the CEO for a public flogging by the media is not always the best course of action.
So this post is for journalists, here are five good reasons why the CEO may not want to talk to you;
- It’s not free publicity. Reporters who think they are doing the CEO a favour by publicizing the company don’t understand marketing or public relations. Publicity is the distribution of a controlled message with measurable results. Unless it’s a start-up company with no track record, an ad hoc story isn’t of much value. The CEO doesn’t know which clip you’ll use or what context you’ll put it in which can be dangerous so he’ll probably hire someone like me to help develop messages and practice delivering them as answers to your questions. If you take a strange angle or misunderstand the business, there will be more work to communicate the real message to stakeholders. So your interview is anything but free publicity.
- It’s someone else’s job. You may think the buck stops on the CEO’s desk and in most respects it does. But companies have executive teams and it’s quite possible that someone else is better able to answer your questions. Although it might be fun for the reporter, no one in the company wants the CEO to look foolish and that can happen if he didn’t have daily involvement in the issue you’re asking about. There is also an implied importance attached to an issue when the CEO speaks and his availability (or lack of) may be a strategic decision. During a crisis, it may not be appropriate for the CEO to be the first to comment because that could make the situation appear more serious than it really is.
- You’ll get it wrong. You frequently do, much more than you realize. That’s understandable because there are very few beat reporters any more. Reporters might report on forestry, aerospace technology and the ballet all in one week. Your job is to simplify the story for a broad audience. Your generalizations may work for your readers or viewers but sometimes they have different implications for an industry audience. Your reporting errors may not be grievous enough for the CEO to demand a correction but they might be enough to affect the credibility of the company. I once knew a business reporter who complained about having to deal with “icky numbers”. Those numbers mean a lot to the CEO.
- Someone else is listening. Companies have competitors as do media outlets. A newspaper or TV station won’t phone its rival to discuss their main story that night so why would you expect a CEO to spill all of his or her secrets? Even general cover footage in a company plant can give competitors clues that might have major impact down the road. That’s why we often provide handout photos or video. The CEO might be in complex negotiations that his competitors are unaware of. There could be layoffs coming, restructuring or a major contract in the works. Companies time such announcements very carefully and don’t want details revealed inadvertently during an interview. Your scoop of leaked information lasts about a day but the repercussions for the CEO go on for a while.
- CEO’s have bosses too. They report to Boards of Directors, investors and shareholders. They also need to comply with sometimes strict and complex regulatory regimes set out by various governing bodies. A publically-traded company, for example, has to follow strict disclosure guidelines when it reveals any information that would affect its share price. And then there’s performance. A CEO needs to project confidence and leadership while reporters are often just trying to trip him up. If the reporter holds all the cards and there is more to lose than to win, why would a CEO talk to the media?
Over to you reporters, want to give me five good reasons why a CEO should talk to you?