8 Tips to Become a Candid CEO

Aug 31, 2016

We recently wrote about PR tips from the Donald, whose strategy continues to be, it seems, any PR is good PR.  It baffles many media watchers how Trump can continue to enjoy broad public appeal even when many of his statements turn out to be less than 100 percent truthful.

One of Trump’s secrets is that he’s been able to carefully cultivate a reputation for candor. He speaks directly, and holds nothing back, or so it seems. He keeps talking to any reporter that will listen and he always has an answer (except about those tax returns).

This is in stark contrast to how Hillary Clinton has sometimes dealt with the media. In my experience covering her as a reporter when she was a New York Senator, it was extremely difficult to get her to make any substantive comment. Her defensive posture towards the press included tactics like filling the Senate elevator with her staff, so no reporter could jump on for an exclusive two-minute interview. I often wonder if Secretary Clinton would have received better press over the years if she had been slightly more open.

So I understand why Trump is catnip for reporters. Having also worked as a business reporter, I often encountered CEOs who were so reluctant to utter a single opinion, prediction, or colorful deal detail that interviews became painful tug of war exercises where no one wins. I had no story, and I was unlikely to call that CEO again, so he or she lost out on potential coverage in the future.

Caught in the middle of this tug of war is the public relations agency, which is keen to provide coverage opportunities and may be blindsided by how close-lipped the CEO turns out to be once the tape is rolling.

The solution is for company leadership, under the gentle guidance of its PR agency, to learn to be more candid, within reason. There is a wide swath of territory between the loquacious Mr. Trump and the reticent Secretary Clinton. It’s territory worth exploring to build trust, establish rapport and lay the groundwork for coverage when it counts. Learn how to be a candid CEO and reap the rewards.

  1. Come clean with your PR team

There probably are many things you don’t want to share with the media, but opening up to your PR team will enable them to guide interviews around sensitive topics. Are you facing a potential merger, departing CFO, or product recall? We need to know, sooner rather than later. Your PR team can help determine whether a potential negative piece of news can in fact be turned into a turnaround or redemption story. For instance, a divestiture of a non-core business may be an indication that a leadership team is laser-focused on expansion of its core product. A less than stellar third quarter may mask an overall growth trajectory if three delayed deals will close in December.

  1. Review what is in the public domain

There is nothing more frustrating, for a reporter, than a CEO’s refusal to answer a question on a topic that has already seen the light of day via a regulatory filing, news release, etc. On the other hand, there may be news already out there  for instance in a dense proxy, or in a rival’s lawsuit that the reporter hasn’t seen. The CEO may be able to gain candor points by talking about a completed hire or deal instead of one that is still in the works.

  1. Use the whole animal

Remember that new details about old news are considered new news! In today’s 24-hour news cycle, many reporters are expected to submit multiple posts per day. A couple of new colorful details can extend the news cycle on an old story while gaining candor points along the way. Reporters love to get the backstory.

  1. Offer a trade

When my three-year-old whines that another kid won’t share a toy, I tell him to get smart. Find another toy the kid may want and offer a trade. Don’t want to talk about a product launch delay? Maybe you can instead offer a unique insight on the unintended consequences of a new regulation. Reporters love unintended consequences.

  1. Occasionally, be vulnerable

Once I interviewed a famously candid CEO of a health IT company for a profile. Throughout the interview, his internal PR team chewed their fingers off, as the CEO lobbed expletives at a high profile health care system and then rehashed his complicated childhood and messy divorce. But I didn’t include those details in the profile, I didn’t need to. These raw tidbits helped me to understand what drove him as a healthcare executive and I could convey that in a much more interesting way than simply airing dirty laundry. To this day, I have a pretty soft spot towards this very candid CEO.

I’m not suggesting Kardashian-level oversharing for healthcare execs on a regular basis. But letting journalists know you’re human is sometimes a good way to bring out their humanity as well.

  1. Say no, but nicely

Don’t shut down the interview when it wanders into uncomfortable territory. Explain gently that you can’t talk about that topic. If it’s news that will soon be public, offer the reporter an exclusive second conversation. Or if fielding several requests for comment, you could promise to release the news to everyone simultaneously via conference call.

  1. Realize reporters are reporters

In the end, reporters will report on what they want to, with or without your participation, as long as they are able to get sources to talk. There are some companies that are airtight, leak proof ships. But if a deal involves another company, there could be leaks there. Lawyers, accountants and other vendors are also frequent targets. As one former colleague told an angry CEO who refused an interview (only to find the story in the paper anyway) I don’t have to ask permission to publish news.”

  1. Get some advice

The bottom line is that CEOs must decide for themselves, do I want to let others tell my story, or do I want to tell it myself?

How effectively you tell your story will depend on scores of variables everything from your tone of voice, to your appropriate use of humor, to the color of your shirt or blouse. Luckily, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. An investment in media training, for instance, can help leaders ready to make the leap to candid CEOs to project the kind of candor that will endear them to reporters, elevate the brand, and optimize opportunities to transmit the company message to key audiences including customers, potential leads, shareholders, potential investors and the public.

Julie Donnelly

Julie Donnelly is an award-winning former journalist with 15 years' experience reporting for radio, TV, print and online outlets. Her work has aired on NPR, PBS, BBC, South African Broadcasting Corp., Channel New Asia and Australian Independent Radio. From 2008 to 2014, she covered the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, HIT, hospital and healthcare payer industries for the Boston Business Journal. Donnelly provides custom content to healthcare and HIT clients including blogs, contributed articles, white papers, website copy, news releases and executive speeches. A one-time Associated Press Rookie of the Year, Julie has won an Edward R. Murrow Award for radio writing and has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. Since leaving journalism, Julie has become a sought-after content contributor to both industry publications and to healthcare/ HIT companies. Julie brings a 360-degree perspective to healthcare and HIT clients, with a keen understanding of the economic and regulatory forces shaping the healthcare landscape today. Donnelly holds a B.A. in Political Science from Macalester College and an M.A. in International Journalism from City University in London, U.K.