The public relations roadblock to accessing company execs
The love/hate relationship between business journalists and a company’s public relations team is a well documented one.
To heighten this already contentious relationship, companies frequently use their public relations staff as a roadblock to keep business journalists from calling C-suite executives.
Why do companies, particularly publicly traded companies often do this? And is it the best strategy?
One of the most important tasks of a PR professional is to stay on and promote their company’s carefully crafted message and provide positive spin on any news that comes about about the company.
Since this is a key part of their job, PR professionals are accustomed to handling relationships with journalists, carefully preparing in advance for any question that a journalist may fire.
While CEOs are trained to handle questions from reporters to some extent as well, they most likely aren’t as prepared to field questions from reporters on a daily basis and stay perfectly on company message.
Because of this and the other plethora of duties that company executives have, it makes some sense that business journalists are often deferred to the public relations department, rather than being able to directly call executives. This often comes to the frustration of business journalists who would much rather a quote from someone inside of the company rather than spin from either an external PR firm or the internal PR department.
Is it in the company’s best interest?
Whether it is a wise choice for a company to have its PR department field questions from journalists that may be better answered by the CEO is an interesting question. While certain companies have precedents on whether their CEOs will take direct calls from business journalists, to some extent this tone can be set by the chief executive.
If the CEO is amiable toward the media and is media savvy, I don’t think it is wise of a company to prevent journalists from speaking to the executives. In fact, it can even be to the company’s detriment, as the CEO may have the best perspective on a company’s goals and outlook.
Further, a story that contains a quote from a CEO will often get better play in a newspaper or on a website than a story that simply quotes a prepared message from a press release or PR person.
Talking to executives also allows journalists to cultivate a personal relationship with the company, which can help provide fair and accurate coverage — even if this coverage is not always favorable. Giving the CEO a chance to comment in a story that may be negative but fair may appear better to the public than a story where the CEO refuses to comment at all.
Bill Berkley, who has been the CEO of insurance firm W.R. Berkley Corp. since the company’s formation in 1967, is know for providing his blunt and honest opinions to reporters.
Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, has also been known to speak freely with reporters and to utilize media relationships wisely. Buffett even writes his own shareholder newsletter, which is uncommon for CEOs of large companies. He also pens opinion pieces that are published by major news outlets, seeming to understand the importance of a comprehensive communications strategy.
Media savvy CEOs
An executive that doesn’t shy away from the media but instead knows how to leverage news coverage and when to take calls directly from business journalists can have the most success in obtaining the most fair coverage. This is because a reporter is able to obtain the truth from all sides and insert comments from the most important players in a story.
Additionally, as Dan Simon, a Forbes contributor, wrote in his blog earlier in October, “Senior executives who believe in the power of PR often see the greatest results and those who don’t almost always end up with the less positive outcome they predicted from the start.”
Simon goes on to point out that CEOs who believe in the power of public relations often see better results in the media not because of “the power of faith” but because these are the executives who take actions to help boost the company’s public relations.
Executives who understand and believe in maintaining a relationship with the public and with the media will seek out opportunities to enter conversations about their industry, whether that be speaking at conferences, taking a reporter’s call or blogging and writing opinion pieces.
“Naturally this results in better conversion rates of interviews to coverage and better relationships with key influencers,” Simon wrote.
Thus, the company that will be most successful in promoting its message and maintaining a positive relationship with business journalists will be the ones whose top executives will happily take the calls of journalists, rather than creating a PR roadblock for them.