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The rise of the media shy CEO

New research finds chief executives are increasingly reluctant to engage with financial media, and one in three no longer see it as part of their duties

Got a chief executive who doesn’t want to talk to the press?

Don’t worry. You’re not alone.

A new report from Apella Advisors has found that 52 per cent of in-house communications professionals have the same problem. In fact, one in three claims their chief executive no longer sees speaking to the media as part of their role.

Admittedly, the agency only surveyed 31 people, so we’re hardly talking Gallup here, but the fact remains that there is a growing reluctance by chief execs to engage with business media.

Why? In some respects, it is the media’s own fault. Reasons cited by the respondents ranged from business journalists’ lack of experience, the increasing struggle to get fair coverage and the perceived risks.

Of course, there has always been the risk of getting misquoted or a hack taking a contrarian view from the one proffered by comms, but in today’s media environment, where editorial decisions are driven by clicks rather than judgment, there is an increasing view that journalists are being more confrontational to elicit a ‘gotcha’ style quote.

One respondent even believes that the starting point for many correspondents is that ‘business is bad’ – that’s a recipe for a combative discussion and an irritated chief executive – while others are keen to ‘make’ their name.

It has also not escaped CEOs’ notice that the departure of former NatWest boss Dame Alison Rose followed an ill-advised conversation with BBC hack Simon Jack. A CEO scalp might be seen as a fast-track to recognition, if not promotion, for an ambitious young journalist.

However, it’s unfair to solely blame the juniors. One comms director recently told me about a seasoned hack who had written almost 20 columns about his company, without once ringing the media team. Why would the chief exec even bother to start a dialogue in that instance?

There is also a feeling that the media no longer has the power and influence that it once wielded. That may be slightly unfair. A well-researched article can still generate business opportunities, as Apella Advisers themselves might attest, but with readership levels declining and a younger generation that increasingly garners their wisdom from TikTok dances, it is certainly true that an article in the FT’s Lex column, say, might not move a share price in the way it once did.

Stakeholder priorities have also changed. Where once the focus was on external relations, today internal communication increasingly dominates, with chief executives dedicating ever greater amounts of time to engaging with their people.

The survey found that 97 per cent of respondents – effectively all bar one – believe internal channels are now viewed as one of the top three ways to communicate by chief executives.

Similarly, three in four said that LinkedIn has grown in importance as a communications channel for chief executives, while 65 per cent cited podcasts. As the report says, when a chief executive has 1,001 things on their to-do list, it is more time-effective to record a short video or approve a 500-word article for LinkedIn, than to spend hours preparing for an interview with a journalist they may hardly know. The message has been controlled.

And who wants to be the comms director or agency adviser that pushes their chief executive to do a one-to-one interview only for it to ultimately backfire?

Does this matter? The short answer is yes.

As the report points out, chief executives who emerge infrequently to chat to the media can find themselves broadsided by an array of questions by journalists concerned they will never get the chance again. It is hardly conducive to ensuring the ‘message’ is delivered.

I’m an old-style banking hack, who once regularly met with chief executives to learn more about their strategy or simply shoot the breeze about the marketplace. As a result, my coverage was informed, although they may not have always liked my ultimate take on the spin they tried to push.

But it also meant that, in the event of a hostile takeover, say, or a crisis, I already understood the bank’s stance and likely response. I knew the people involved, so when they called, I listened. And in hard news events like those, where do stakeholders, including employees, go for information? I can guarantee it won’t be the chief executive’s LinkedIn page or the company website.

Of course, the chief executive will argue that his PR can handle those calls. But an ‘on the record’ quote from the boss carries far more weight with readers than an anonymous source. And, after all, the chief executive does get paid the big bucks!

Personally, I suspect some chief execs are reluctant to engage because they don’t want to be quizzed about their big bucks.

Chris O’Shea, boss of Centrica, was grilled about his salary on BBC Breakfast in January. He replied, honestly, that the £4.5 million package was hard to ‘justify’. Yes, his quote led the news cycle for a day or two, but then… zilch. I imagine O’Shea’s standing in the financial media has risen because of his candour (while, let’s face it, his bank balance emerged unscathed).

And here’s the other thing about engaging with journalists: they are usually loyal and supportive to those chief executives who have been loyal and supportive to them. It may not seem important now, but a boss in a pickle (or an unexpected departure lounge) may find it helps to have ‘friends in high places’.

They might turn out to be the only ones he (or she) has.