Think of the public face of a public company, and more often than not it’s the chief executive officer who comes to mind. Jeff Bezos has been a media fixture since he founded Web retailer Amazon.com Inc.; far fewer people know the name of chief financial officer Tom Szukutak. At the Ford Motor Co., there’s still a Ford (currently, William Jr.) at the wheel; CFO Don Leclair takes a back seat. Hewlett-Packard’s finance chief, Robert Wayman, has a higher profile than many of his peers, but CEO Carly Fiorina gets the lion’s share of the press coverage.
Yet many observers insist that for finance executives, the ability to deal with journalists is more than just gravy on their meat-and-potato menu of skills. “It’s a requirement,” says Larry Winkler, chief financial officer of Washington, D.C.-based telecom InPhonic. At every job interview he’s been on, says Winkler, he’s been questioned about his experience with the press.
Winkler happens to be an extrovert who speaks clearly and energetically, and sometimes rapidly. Many finance executives, on the other hand, are introverts, and they don’t always feel at ease talking to a stranger who writes down their every word. That’s OK — “You don’t have to be Mr. Personality” — says Sally Stewart, author of Media Training 101: A Guide to Meeting the Press. A former reporter for USA Today, Stewart now trains executives in working with the media.
“CFOs can play an integral role in turning around a company’s image,” she continues. These days, journalists are taking the “charismatic” approach of CEOs and other executives with a grain of salt, says Stewart: “They’re not interested in personality; they’re interested in the facts. And CFOs have the facts. They’re well positioned to help the company’s public persona.”
Robert Chapel, chief financial officer of the giant health-services cooperative VHA Inc., agrees that public relations “is just another skill CFOs need to have. And it doesn’t matter if you’re an introvert or an extrovert.” Chapel notes that by some personality-test standards, he’d be labeled an introvert, “but people here wouldn’t know that from seeing me interact.”
Don’t Be Intimidated
The next time a journalist calls, there are some principles you can put into practice, whatever your budget (see “Ground Rules,” at the end of this article). The ideal, says Winkler, would be to hire outside help, though that can sometimes be pricey — costs might run $2,000 a month for an independent consultant to as much as $50,000 a month for a major public-relations firm. The higher-priced offerings are more likely to help you develop a companywide public-relations strategy and to offer thorough media training, including role-playing exercises and scenario analysis.
Even smaller companies, however, may find that a little expert advice goes a long way. “We realized we couldn’t do [the PR] ourselves,” says Kim Kovacs, chief financial officer of Oryxe Energy International Inc., a startup that is developing environmentally safe fuel additives. Although Kovacs herself is media savvy, many of her colleagues were intimidated by the prospect of talking to the press. Oryxe retained Sally Stewart to help formulate the company’s PR strategy, and to work with the executive team on role playing and practice interviews until they were more comfortable with the media. “The big misconception about the press is that they’re asking questions to ‘attack’ you,” notes Kovacs, “but they’re just trying to get the facts.”