Company’s DNA dictates CEO’s brand influence:  takeaways from PRmoment India-Weber Shandwick Chai Talk Mumbai

Despite the PR disaster that was Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey's visit to India, it did highlight a trend that is beginning to emerge in India as well. The CEO's personality in the ópinion economy' can be as strong an influence on the brand as products and services.

According to a global survey by Weber Shandwick, titled, "CEO Activism in 2018: The Tech Effect," shows that professionals in the tech industry, including in India, strongly favour CEO activism. The activist consumer wants an activist CEO.

To discuss the CEOs influence on the brand, the latest PRmoment India - Weber Shandwick India Chai Talk was held in Mumbai last week. 

Company DNA dictates CEOs brand influence 

C-suite participants at Chai Talk said that its the structure, culture and business model of the company that dictates the level of interplay between the CEO and the brand. A CEO that is perceived as being too much out there can actually hurt brand perception. 

Underplayed CEOs outperform Rockstar CEOs 

As the startup culture grew strong roots in India, the star CEO trend has begun in India as well along with the over-romanticization of funding as a selling point.

However, participants at Chai Talk Mumbai pointed out that management gurus such as Jim Collins have shared research that shows rockstar CEOs underperform CEOs who are more reticent. At the same time, it is the rare CEO who cannot sell the company's brand. By definition, the role of the CEO is externally focused. Start-up CEOs are especially externally focused on brand communication as it's survival of the brand at stake as they offer a product or service that needs to be talked about.

The CEO: storyteller, brand custodian 

Regardless of the amount of external communication he does, communicators believe that the CEO is the main storyteller for a brand. Satinder Bindra, director, communications for Uber India and South Asia said that the CEO is the storyteller most closely associated with the brand. Drawing on his own extensive career as a leading TV journalist with CNN International, Bindra said that even journalism has its shares of stars. However, Bindra believes that while the story should always be bigger than the storyteller, leaders such as Ted Turner and Steve Jobs definitely injected their personality into the brand, were very closely associated with it and their own personality traits such as being bold, ambitious and visionary were seen as being responsible for the success of the organization.

Commenting on his experience as the director of communications at the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi, Kenya, Bindra recalled how while leading the UN's ``Seal the Deal'' campaign in 2009 to bring about an emissions reduction treaty, it was mainly the executive director of UNEP, Achim Steiner, who pushed out messaging related to the importance of getting a deal done. This said Bindra, was perhaps not enough and it made him realize that the top leadership of the UN, too had to be more closely associated with the campaign. If they had communicated more constantly about it and had been more visible as leading the campaign and being its main spokespeople, it could have produced much better results.

Aligning the CEO with the brand, being consistent 

Paresh Chaudhry, group president, corporate communication at the Adani group said that a key factor in deciding how the CEO's personal brand plays out is to ensure that the perception about the CEO in the market is well aligned with that of the brand. If the two don't match well, it can lead to major brand dissonance. 

This has been very clearly seen in India recently with Infosys and Vishal Sikka, where brand Infosys was perceived to be different from brand Sikka, especially in the eyes of the promoter N.R Narayana Murthy, himself one of the first CEOs in India to strongly influence a company's brand perception.

Should corporate communicators report to the CEO or the CMO?

One of the main questions on the mind of corporate communicators is whether they should direct report to the CEO or the CMO and what is their role vis a viv. the two. Amandeep Arora, head PR and communications,, a Policybazaar company raised this question at Chai Talk Mumbai. Senior management present outlined that out that all three roles are aligned with each other in a circular arrangement and all three contribute to keeping the CEO's messaging authentic and consistent. 

CEO Activism 

In the US, the role of the activist CEO is being seen increasingly, a trend that may begin to emerge in India as well.


Commenting on the evolving consumer push for rising expectations from CEOs,' Rohan Kanchan, managing director, consulting and strategy for Weber Shandwick, said that their research in the report titled 'CEO Activism in 2018: The Purposeful CEO' has shown that favourability of CEO activism amongst Americans has risen significantly.  Consumers not only expect CEO activism to grow over the years but also indicate that their purchase decisions will be influenced on the basis of the stance they agree with.

Vivek Gupta, managing director, from market research firm IPSOS, says that by and large Indian CEOs are risk-averse and tend to be media shy. Jency Jacob, the managing editor of Boom Live, the site that busts fake news, said that hardly any Indian CEOs are out there using social media in a significant way, barring exceptions such as Anand Mahindra and Paytm's Vijay Shekhar.

Commenting on this very cautious approach, Deepa Sapatnekar, head of consumer PR, APAC for LinkedIn, said that she feels that CEOs ought to be less risk averse adopting social media. She stressed that the conversations are already happening and social media can get you a seat at the table. Sapatnekar also warns against overleveraging the CEO to speak about the brand and to have other spokespersons speaking about topics in their swim-lane, for example, if it's about employer branding or HR policies at LinkedIn, she would leverage her head of HR. 

Ranjit Nair, CEO of analytics firm Germin8, said he recommended measuring the gap between the actual perception of a firm and its desired perception. These will determine the messaging that the CEO, in his role as 'Chief Storyteller', will be responsible for communicating along with other brand custodians of the firm

Going forward, clearly, the demands on the CEO to be the face of the brand is only going to grow. Communicators will be a key ally in the this evolving CEO role.

The Chai Talk expert panel consisted of:

1) Paresh Chaudhry, president corporate communication, Adani Group

2) Deepa Sapatnekar, head, consumer PR, APAC, LinkedIn 

3) Vivek Gupta, MD, Ipsos India  

4) Jency Jacob, managing editor, Boom Live

5) Ranjit Nair, CEO, Germin8 

Thank you Weber Shandwick India for supporting the 'Chai Talk' knowledge roundtable and Uber India for hosting the event.

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