CEOs are often the face of a company, but having a visible, or even well liked, CEO may not help a company’s reputation in all situations. This is a topic I explored over the summer with PRIME Research thanks to the Grunig PRIME Fellowship. Specifically, I looked at how the tone and visibility of CEO media coverage is related to the tone and visibility of overall organization coverage.
The first big takeaway is not all publicity is good publicity. Most public relations practitioners know this already, but if your CEO happens to be getting a ton of news coverage, it is probably a bad thing. CEOs often become visible during a crisis or because they say something particularly stupid. For example, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary gained some visibility recently by saying “seatbelts don’t matter.” If he had said something reasonable like, “safety first,” media outlets probably wouldn’t have jumped on the story. Of course, these are just general relationships and there are exceptions to every rule.
The next takeaway is simply that there is a strong relationship between CEO media tone and overall company media tone. Public relations practitioners working for an organization where the CEO gains mostly negative media coverage would likely find it difficult to earn mostly positive coverage for the organization in general. The opposite is also true, if an organization is regularly bashed in the media, its CEO would likely struggle to maintain a positive reputation.
While those findings may seem intuitive, we found some other interesting things that can inform the way practitioners do media relations and use their CEO as a media spokesperson. CEO tone is more closely related to certain areas of coverage than others. The tone of coverage of financial performance or products has no significant relationship to a CEO’s media reputation. This makes sense since those are tangible things that can be judged objectively separately from a CEO. Because of this, in most cases it would not make sense for a CEO to be the spokesperson for a product or service. A customer is more likely to judge those things based on its own merits or their own experience. On the other hand, stories about corporate social responsibility or organization strategy are closely related to a CEO’s reputation. Although the direction of these relationships are not outlined in this initial study, it makes sense that a well liked or trusted CEO could drive positive coverage in these areas. Likewise, if a company is praised for its CSR efforts or corporate strategy, a CEO is likely to get credit for it.
If you’d like to read more of the study, it can be found here. While we plan to do more research on the causes and consequences of these relationships, this study helps confirm things practitioners have believed for years as well as give them some new things to think about.
Nicole Lee is a master’s student in public relations at San Diego State University.