A CEO with a degree from Harvard Business School or any other top business school may impress a board of directors, investors or shareholders, but don’t expect that to be enough to land your chief executive on the cover of Fortune or to be the focus of a full-page profile in The Wall Street Journal.
Unfortunately for public relations professionals, the bar for a journalist to even consider writing a piece about a client CEO is much higher today than it has ever been. As newsroom staffs have gotten smaller over the years, the focus at many outlets has become producing quick stories that don’t require a lot of research—a higher quantity of articles to keep up with the unending news cycle.
During the 20-plus years I worked as a journalist, I interviewed hundreds of CEOs around the world—from Moscow to Mumbai and Detroit to Dubai. Nine times out of 10, PR people would focus on the CEO’s education and pedigree. But, in the words of Shania Twain, “that don’t impress me much.”
A former colleague, Ellen Chang, who now writes frequently for Barron’s and U.S. News & World Report, agrees: “I honestly don’t think reporters care at all about where CEOs went to college and all the other extra things in bios.”
While education is definitely important to include in bios and as a bullet point in pitches, journalists are looking for the story behind the bullet point. Sometimes, as journalist Bret Kenwell says, “The accomplishments are cool and everyone wants to know what school Mary Barra (GM) or Howard Schultz (Starbucks) went to, but I need more.”
If Harvard Won’t Work, What Will?
“I like to learn the more interesting side of their background—like Barra starting with GM at age 18 or Schultz growing up in the housing projects,” says Kenwell.
In my years as a journalist, the unwritten story was always the more interesting one. Journalists are looking for a new angle or a different perspective on a topic that’s in the news. It’s important for us as public relations professionals to seek out those stories and ask our clients the questions that elicit answers that aren’t just a rehash of the corporate messaging points. The best CEOs I ever interviewed were the ones who could tell their story in a compelling way and tie it back to the mission or vision of the company.
Chang points to the story of the Airbnb founders: “They used credit cards to bootstrap the company. It’s a story that stays with you. It’s a story that tells a narrative of how they achieved success.”
What If My CEO Doesn’t Have a Great Story?
It’s a question I hear often from people I know in the PR industry working with startups or young companies. It raises a red flag, a warning that the PR person likely needs to dig a little deeper. After all, no one gets to the top job at any company by chance. It usually requires some grit and determination. Or, at the very least, some creative maneuvering.
“What makes them tick, what do they care about outside of work, and what do they see as the future of their industry? That offers more insight to my mind, and that’s something I try to focus on. It’s also great to hear what a successful CEO’s routine is because it’s something all of us—big or small—can implement in our day-to-day lives. I like to find the things other people can relate to,” said Kenwell.
Finding a CEO’s Human Side
For journalists, finding the human side of a CEO helps them tell a story that more of their audience can relate to. For example, journalists would find intriguing a description of how an executive’s evolution and adaptation have allowed them to overcome obstacles and, against all odds, find success. It’s not that interesting when a CEO boosts a company’s market cap or stock price, even by remarkable percentage points. What’s more engaging from a narrative perspective is the down-and-out moment, the point when the executive almost gave up but had a eureka moment or tried one last-ditch effort. That really propels a story—the psychological tension, the rawness. What journalists want is someone to take them beyond the numbers and the product and into their mind. That’s what allows us to connect as human beings, because, after all, we’re all striving toward something.
You might think you’ve heard about your CEO’s interests and passions a million times, but try to go back to the CEO once a quarter and learn something new. Like building any relationship, the more you know, the more opportunities you’ll have to take those nuggets and explore how to build storylines that journalists will find compelling.