The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story on how CEOs are taking to the airwaves to burnish their company’s brand image, citing Doug McMillon’s three month TV ad campaign on behalf of Walmart (a first for that company). Walmart, which has a reputation for lower pay and employee benefits, is undergoing a culture change under McMillon, who addressed the company’s multimillion-dollar investment in raising worker wages and career training by saying, “We take care of the people who take care of you.”

These forays aren’t new. As the article points out, Lee Iacocca famously did it for Chrysler in the eighties, when his brand was under attack from Japanese and German imports. That’s typically why a CEO takes to the airwaves—to “put out a fire.”

There are exceptions to the rule though – CEOs Jim Koch and John Schnatter are the long-time faces of The Boston Beer Company and Papa John’s Pizza, for example.  CEOs like them help build a brand, and are honestly seen as synonymous with its image and growth. If they have a good on-camera persona, their presence can be a help (unless, of course, they leave the company. In which case, you need a new “face of the brand.”).

As the article illustrates, the rise of social media and the urge to be “everywhere your brand is” may be driving some CEOs to show more of themselves. Yet many remain cautious about using such tactics unless a crisis or extraordinary situation makes it necessary. So the question is, when do you put your CEO in front of a camera?

The answer is to ask other questions: What do you hope to gain from it? What would you hope your audience comes away with?

If your brand is in crisis and your CEO goes on camera to give a heartfelt mea culpa and vows to fix the problem, the hope is this staunch the flow of bad publicity by showing your company isn’t hiding from the problem. The CEO acknowledges there is a problem and vows to fix it.

If your brand is on the rise and your goal is greater brand recognition or extension by positioning your leader as an  person who wants to provide a good product/service, you hope your CEO’s candor and persona makes that case and forms a bond with your audience.

But what if it backfires?

What if your CEO doesn’t come across that well? What if they seem wooden, simply mouthing what they are prompted to say, and don’t connect with your audience? People may resent what they perceive as insincerity and be turned off by what they perceive as a blatant and cheap appeal to their emotions.

Social media adds a “wild card” to the mix. It broadens your audience and number of potential responses, so you run a greater risk of having a negative response generate its own firestorm, which achieves the opposite of what you’d hoped for.

Before putting your CEO and brand into a situation where you spend more time reacting to brushfires than counting compliments, you probably need to ask several questions:

  • What are you hoping to achieve by putting your CEO in front of a large, unfamiliar audience?
  • Can your CEO deliver on the stated objective (assuming you have the right message and your CEO is properly prepared)?
  • Can you accept/manage the outcome once the message is out there?

Rarely are CEOs and companies able to do this on their own. They’re simply too close to the brand and the leader to objectively determine if both are right and can work as intended. To make this strategy successful, you need a “mirror” — an honest one — to make sure what you see is what your audience sees and the message delivered is the one they get.

Find that “mirror” and take a good look — before you let your audience do the same.

 – Michael Kassin

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