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.”
At VHA, public relations director Lynn Gentry offers media training twice a year. While it’s not required, most senior executives are encouraged to attend, and they do. “It’s short-sighted to think only the CEO can deliver the company’s message,” says Gentry. “It’s important to have bench strength for talking to the media.”
Media training could, in fact, be considered a form of risk management. It’s imperative to have a public-relations strategy in place from the get-go; a companywide PR plan can take from six months to a year to develop, maintains InPhonics’ Winkler. That’s time well spent, says Stewart, because “companies need to be prepared for a wide variety of eventualities,” but at many companies, PR is “the first meeting to be cancelled.”
Knowing when you don’t want press coverage can be just as important. At Oryxe, says Kovacs, they’re staying under the radar for now, until the process of demonstrating their product is complete. “In this industry, more than in others,” she adds, “credibility matters.”
Your company’s credibility will be strengthened, say Winkler and VHA’s Chapel, if you build a rapport with the journalists who cover your company before you need them. Those relationships often come into play in the context of what Winkler calls “tactical PR” — that is, how to respond in particular situations.
Your ultimate goal in talking with the press, observes Gentry, is not simply to answer questions, but to share your company’s message. Keep that message in mind, and use every opportunity in the conversation to reinforce it.
- Prepare yourself for a media interview just as you would for a job interview: Know who your audience will be, anticipate likely questions, and have a firm grasp of the overall message you want to convey.
- Assume that everything you say during your time with the interviewer will be reported, says Gentry — even when you’re not “in” the interview. And don’t think that the reporter is your friend because you had a nice conversation, advises Stewart; a journalist’s first allegiance is to the story.
- Talk about facts. Don’t discuss hypothetical situations, says Stewart; talk only about what you know.
- Keep your answers short. VHA’s Gentry suggests that you limit your answers to no more than 30 seconds, and that you avoid elaborating: “Fewer sentences leaves less opportunity for the reporter to misinterpret you.”
- Don’t say “no comment.” Across the board, experts agree that this is the worst thing to say in an interview. That phrase calls even more attention to subjects that you’re uncomfortable discussing, and it gives a journalist the opportunity to report the story as he or she perceives it — which may not jibe with your version. You don’t necessarily need to divulge information, of course, but you do need to avoid those two little words. Decline politely, and say why you can’t answer. For example: “I can’t discuss that until May 31, when our quiet period ends.”
- If you feel the reporter has a bias, says Gentry, don’t be afraid to challenge his or her assumptions.