Managing the CEO Brand

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By Virgil Scudder, President, Virgil Scudder & Associates, Inc. 


Companies often spend millions of dollars to establish and promote their brands only to ignore one of the most profitable brands in their arsenal-the CEO.

Surveys have shown that companies that have a CEO who is well known and well regarded perform better in the stock market. Yet, many companies waste this asset.

Why? Very often it’s fear and aversion of the media. A recent Canadian survey showed that CEOs regarded the news media as the greatest threat to a company’s reputation.

In the 28 years I’ve counseled CEOs and other top executives, I’ve heard a lot of strange notions coming from the corner office. Some common CEO excuses for being media-absent are “we can’t win,” “I don’t have the time,” or “I hire PR people to do the interviews.”

That attitude leaves opportunity on the table. It’s painful for a communications professional to see the head of a competing company getting accolades on a TV program that was available to his or her CEO.

The CEO needs to be known to the media and the public for many reasons beyond the price of the stock. A high positive profile improves morale-employees want to see the boss out there talking about their accomplishments.

Shareholders and boards of directors also need to see the leader speaking effectively for the company.

And, critically important, high favorable recognition is essential when a crisis hits.

Wal-Mart gives us a good case study in this area. For a long time the company and its CEO basically remained under the radar as negative perceptions mounted: hiring illegal aliens, locking cleaning workers in stores, poor employee benefits, and running roughshod over community feelings about building new stores. But, things have changed recently. CEO Lee Scott-a virtual unknown to most people until recently-has become a much more public face. The image he projects for Wal-Mart is reasonable, positive, and fair. And the company has benefited greatly from this change in perception that he is leading.

Many corporate leaders simply don’t understand the media landscape. True, there are journalists who will come into an interview looking for a scalp. But there are far more who are simply looking for a good story. They want to hear it from the CEO. The company that takes advantage of its opportunities has a leg up on the one that doesn’t.

Opportunities abound. Heads of corporations can get fair and positive treatment on numerous broadcast outlets including Bloomberg, CNBC, CNNfn, Fox, and PBS. Most of the interview questions are “soft balls,” such as “how will you account for the dramatic growth you’ve seen in the past 12 months?”

But what about those tough and negative questions that CEOs fear? Every one can be anticipated and handled with an effective answer at the ready. Fear of tough questions is no reason to leave opportunity on the table.

The best executive communication programs combine selected media interviews-print as well as broadcast-with selected public appearances for C-level executives. Just as a company’s leaders should not be invisible, they also should not be available to anyone and everyone who wants access to them. A CEO is a limited edition, as are other C-level executives.

A handful of appearances, say four to six a year, can produce big dividends for the executive and the company. Talks before groups such as the Executive Club of Chicago, the Detroit Economic Club, The Conference Board, and Town Hall, Los Angeles, offer many advantages.

Among them: members of these organizations are influential; local and national media coverage is virtually assured; and guests are treated in a very respectful and professional manner. Moreover, just being on the program of this kind of organization makes a statement about the quality of the company and the individual.

But, success in this arena requires certain things. The speech must be substantive. It must have something to say about business trends today, not merely be a sales vehicle for the company. It must be well written and well delivered. The speaker must take time to rehearse and should retain an executive communications coach to help polish the speaker’s skills.

In my opinion, no company does a better job of planning, executing, and marketing such a program than UPS. A speech by its CEO at Town Hall, Los Angeles, was turned into 26 million impressions through local news stories, wire service stories, media interviews, op-ed pieces, Internet and Intranet posting, and reprints. The value to the company is incalculable.

Like it or not, a CEO is a brand. The only question is whether it’s a known brand and whether the image is positive. If that brand is properly developed and managed, the company will reap big dividends.

One of the pioneers in the field, Virgil Scudder’s career as a media trainer dates back to 1977 and is global in scope. He has conducted training throughout the US and in many far-ranging locations including Australia, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Canada, Puerto Rico and the Netherlands. Virgil’s clients include CEOs of numerous major corporations and government leaders in the US and abroad. He began training executives after a long and successful career in news and sports broadcasting which included NBC and ABC.

Published in The Gauge

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