ITL #289 - Facing the cameras: shifting the media spotlight from CEO to CCO

1 year, 10 months ago


Should your Chief Communication Officer* be your chief communications spokesperson? By Guy Esnouf.*Other titles are available

This is a subject that divides Comms Directors – and from what I hear, most are against it.  And if this perception is true, then in my opinion the majority of my colleagues in this area are wrong.

Yes, the CEO or Chair is the best title to talk to the media, but in the real world they are often not the best or most practical choice. We are. We have, or should have, the skill, the understanding and the availability.  So therefore we should do it. 

You might argue that the media don’t want to talk to us, they want ‘real people.’  But what they really want is someone senior, and once you develop a reputation as competent, straightforward and interesting, they will want more.  After my first down the line interview/argument with Kay Burley on Sky News, the producer said in my ear – “that was fun, we’ll have you again.”

Why are we the best choice:

  • Messaging: We are the people responsible for good messaging being developed, either producing it or signing it off.  Therefore, we should know our messaging best.  We all know how important it is to stay on message, so it makes the most sense for the person who knows that message best to be the one talking.  It’s true that others in the business will be more expert.  But it’s equally true that many experts get tongue tied when they talk to a microphone, whereas in the brief encounter that media interviews are, we can have the benefit of being clear and clearly on message.
  • Training: We have been trained – haven’t we? (As an aside, when was the last time you had media training?) We know the pitfalls, the clever traps, the risk of digression, of answering the question more directly than you wanted to – or less directly than was called for. In most areas of life, you choose your most trained person to lead from the front. So why do we so often not choose ourselves?
  • Experience: We have the experience, and we have made the mistakes. I know I have, and I take those scars and successes into every media interview I do.  There is no substitute for experience in what can sometimes feel like the closest business equivalent to hand to hand combat without actually drawing blood. After you’ve been asked live on breakfast radio if you watch online pornography (the interview was about the problems caused by computers) then there are few surprises left. 
  • Feedback: The direct, personal feedback from a media interview is invaluable. It stops us talking in message houses that resemble ivory towers, that don’t really relate to the real world’s questions and challenges. I find this feedback essential, and many times the right way to say something has come in the heat of an interview.  We launched our ‘Fuel Bank’ programme two years ago to help people with pre-payment electricity meters who couldn’t heat their homes. We knew the immediate challenge would be: if we want to help, then why don’t we cut our prices?  The answer, formed in a live interview, was that these people are in such need that a 20%, 50% or 80% price cut wouldn’t help – these are people who can afford nothing!  This is undeniably true, and it moved the debate away from energy prices and onto the real issue of poverty.

The most practical choice:

  • Cost effectiveness: Let’s be honest, it’s usually cheaper and less disrupting to our business for us to be the person who talks on radio or to camera. So often we are told the business executive isn’t available, doesn’t have the time, isn’t free – etc. And that’s probably true, because to them it’s a huge commitment, while to us it’s much less so.  We know the right things to say and the right things to wear. We won’t be up all night worrying about it. We can often just turn up and go with only a short briefing note to support us. I’ve agreed to do numerous interviews with 5 or 10 minutes’ notice.
  • Time to prepare: It’s much easier for our teams to prepare us, which means that it’s more efficient for the whole communications function that we do it ourselves. As Directors, one of our key jobs is to make sure our teams can be as efficient as possible – and because we know the messaging, have been trained and have the battle scars of the past, we can pick things up in a heartbeat (nearly). 
  • Availability: And we can be available more readily than the CEO or other board members. We are paid to defend and promote our reputation, so doing media interviews helps us reach our own objectives. And meeting our own objectives is always a priority. The best example for me is also on our Fuel Bank project where just as I got home to the Midlands from overseeing ITN filming just outside London, my head of media relations rang up – as I was walking through my front door – and said I was needed on Sky TV in Durham 200 miles away in the morning. My answer was yes, and it was a hugely successful piece that set the basis for future coverage. But who else in the company would have said yes? Probably no one.

If there are others in our business with our training, message understanding and media ability, then they should do it.  But often there aren’t.  Of course, it’s not always right for us to do it, and there are times of crisis or compassion when it has to be the CEO. There are times when genuinely technical knowledge are required; but those are the exception not the rule. 

So most of the time, if not us, who? It’s time we put our face behind our messages. Get out of the back office and into the front line – we are (or should be) the best at it, the most available and the most experienced. It might not be what the news media always want, but we will help them get a better, more rounded and more informed story.

But what do you think?

The author

Guy Esnouf is Director of Communications at npower.  He started with the company in October 2013 after six years as Head of Corporate and Internal Communications for E.ON UK.  He spent 14 years in the US, most recently as Senior Director of PR at Microsoft.




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The Author

Guy Esnouf

Guy Esnouf is Director of Communications at npower. He started with the company in October 2013 after six years as Head of Corporate and Internal Communications for E.ON UK. He spent 14 years in the US, most recently as Senior Director of PR at Microsoft.

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