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PR Parables: Mr. CEO, listen to your PR advisor

22nd November 2016


This is a tale that happened many summers ago. But the experience and my learning were big enough to make it to this column.  

This was an annual media event. While all the previous versions of it had been a breeze, there was this one episode, this one year, with one CEO, which taught me a lesson or two.


Planning for this event was no big deal: it was an annual affair, and the team was well acquainted with the drill and who needed to do what. However, for me, the event that year was more challenging and daunting.

I had to convince and cajole a reticent and extremely introverted CEO to preside over this press meet. And believe me, this wasn't easy, even though he was fully aware of the fact that particular media event could only be handled by the CEO. So even if I wanted to help and bail him out, I couldn't. 

The CEO tried his best to wriggle out. He came up with some bright ideas, all of which did not have him in the picture. Why me? he asked. Why can't it be XYZ, even going as far as to tell me that "shuffling spokespersons is a good practice”

I could sense the pushback on his participation as the key spokesperson. No surprise, for this CEO was incredibly introverted, and he did try his best to change the PR plans. "Uneasy lies the head..." 

It took weeks of working on the CEO and getting him to appreciate that the CEO needs to be the CEO, the chief, and no one else can really take his place etc. We finally saw some light, a flicker, if you will. A grudging "OK" kind of acceptance from the CEO appeared to sort out our problem. 

All was going well. We were all prepared to host this press meet. Everything was in place, everything. As a measure of caution, we did a dry run of the next day's event--with our CEO. 

And then, it was daybreak. In a few hours we would be all set to share our story, stand up with pride, and have our CEO talk to a room full of media folks. Feeling in control and full of confidence, to a busy day ahead. 

The lull before the storm came in the form of a mobile phone call, I picked up the phone to hear "Moushumi, cancel today's press meet, I cannot do it” and the line went off. The CEO had spoken, and hung up. 

I had to take action, not orders. I needed to know why this reaction, so I tried calling him. He called me back (what a gentleman he was) and apologized for his abrupt message which he explained was the result of a front-page news item about our company in the premier business daily.  We were in the news for the wrong reasons. 

He was firm. Said clearly that in this situation, "I refuse to meet the media, so cancel the press meet." 

In that moment that I had, I just recall somehow staying incredibly calm, poised and controlled. I kept my voice and emotion in check only to let the CEO know this: "No sir, I will not cancel the press meet".
I told him that I would find out all about the news which had taken us all by surprise and that a detailed Q&A would be ready just in case we got questions from the media about this. 

Okay, he said, but for good measure, before he hung up, he added: "This is the last time I am doing this press event." I didn't react. 

After that narrow escape from serious embarrassment for our company and me, we moved ahead with the preparation and found out some details and facts about this news which had all the elements of snowballing into a big reputation crisis. 

I had just enough time in hand to take the CEO through the facts and about what should he say in case anyone from the media were to ask him questions on that bit of news. All I can say is he looked pale, and extremely anxious. 

The media conference started and we had a full house. The CEO came, presided over the conference, he delivered the piece he had come prepared with. We got a few questions around the main announcement we had made. And what happened next would qualify as a Ripley’s believe it or not in the world of PR and communication. We did not get a single question on the news that was almost marring our day. Can you believe that? We couldn't.

It was surreal. No one asked us anything about the news that nearly derailed us from our tracks. I am eternally grateful to the media who stayed away from asking questions pertaining to the news that had appeared that morning. 

And so, ladies and gentlemen, whatever happens, never kowtow to pressure from the top. It's easy for someone not hands on the field, working on an event, to cancel or drop out. Out of experience I can tell you that the more you learn to be firm but polite with your bosses on matters concerning your work, the more you will earn their respect and not their wrath.

And then there’s the leadership. If they had briefed me or even given a heads up about the issue that finally made it to the press on that morning, this incident wouldn’t have happened. There would have been prior preparation, and, likely, a calm, composed and confident CEO. An exaggerated news item would not have rattled him.

So, CEOs and leaders, a reminder to please trust your people, especially those who work and deal with external stakeholders. 

Moushumi Dutt is a senior corporate communications professional . PR Parables is her monthly column for PRmoment India on learnings from her PR life.


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