‘It’s good to talk’: why CEOs need to know how to speak to the press

Regular conversations with journalists, both on and off the record, can help to grow, manage and protect a company’s – and leader’s – reputation. But be wary of the pitfalls

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The list of calamitous press interviews is a long one. X Corp’s CEO Linda Yaccarino crashed and burned in front of a live audience at the Ritz Carlton in California, while Persimmon Homes CEO Jeff Fairburn was put on the spot when asked about his £75m bonus by the BBC. Still more leaders have faced difficult questions after having an interview published in a magazine or newspaper.

Given the potential for things to go wrong, many leaders might question if speaking to the media is more of a risk than it’s worth. But when handled well, talking to journalists can offer firms and executives the chance to grow their profiles, showcase their achievements, point out their expertise and, where necessary, set the record straight

The key is to understand when to speak and on what topics, and to ensure communications align with the company’s strategy and culture. Some business leaders – think Elon Musk, Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary or Wetherspoon’s Tim Martin – have made a name for themselves by being bold and brash in the press. 

But most take a more considered approach that, when done well, can help boost a business and raise the individual’s perception. Here are some tips on how to get the best possible working relationship with the press.

Consider every opportunity

Media opportunities could be seen as an extension of a company’s marketing strategy. Will Butler-Adams, the chief executive of folding bike manufacturer Brompton Bicycle, often speaks to the media because he sees it as an opportunity to raise brand awareness, especially as a business without a huge advertising budget. 

“It’s good to talk,” he says. “I spend time doing interviews because someone might see an article and think what I’ve spoken about is interesting. They might not know much about us, but the interview sparks some interest and then they go and find out more.”

Some people in business have a misconception that any conversation with a journalist is a risk

Eddie Gershon, a media consultant whose clients include Prezzo, JD Wetherspoon and Monster Energy, acknowledges that time-poor executives might not be able to do every interview opportunity but urges them to at least consider them all – and do a few of them. “I don’t see the logic in CEOs not doing interviews,” he says. 

When it comes to filtering interview requests, there are a number of ways to pick the right ones. Press interviews that are then written up by the journalist can be less daunting than live interviews on TV or radio. The type of publication should also be a factor, with business leaders needing to think carefully about the audience they want to reach. 

Indeed, different publications can serve different purposes, with an interview with a trade magazine, for example, offering an opportunity to speak to suppliers, while one with the national press could get a brand in front of customers.

Charlie Beckett, the director of Polis, the journalism think-tank spun out of the London School of Economics, suggests businesses also consider the point of the interview. Some media is about raising brand awareness, others are about raising awareness of a new product launch and others still about shaping a narrative. 

“A company like Samsung doesn’t need an interview, but if the company has an idea about something in the telecoms sector, for example, it’s likely that people will take what it says seriously,” he says. “It’s good for them to be able to say, ‘we did this first’ or ‘we thought of this first’. The press is a good way of getting your message out there, so that’s what people start to associate you with.”

Understand the value of ‘media capital’ 

Another reason for having a good relationship with the press is to generate what Beckett dubs “media capital”. Businesses and executives that maintain a friendly and constructive relationship with journalists are more likely to be supported, or at least listened to, in the event that something goes wrong. 

“A good journalist is still going to be critical if there’s a reason to be critical. But what you might find is a bit more understanding and the opportunity for the CEO to explain why something has happened the way it has,” Beckett explains. 

This isn’t to say that firms should wine and dine journalists on the assumption that throwing in a few freebies can buy better coverage. But regular meetings with the press both on and off the record can help to create and nurture a strong relationship, built on trust and goodwill. 

“Some people in business have a misconception that any conversation with a journalist is a risk but in my experience journalists just want to get their story right,” says Roxanne Nejad, the vice-president for marketing at AI firm Cleo. “Developing trusted bonds allows for honest conversations that can benefit both parties. That’s useful when a journalist needs a last-minute quote for a story or when a CEO needs to make sure they can get their point of view over.”

If – or rather when – a business finds itself facing a difficult situation such as job cuts or a worse-than-expected financial performance, it’s important to get statements about what is happening out quickly. Again, says Beckett, that can be made easier by already having a relationship with journalists or publications.

Preparation, not pre-agreement

Of course, not every business leader feels confident talking to the press. Some struggle with articulating themselves, or distilling the technical nature of their business. Some can get nervous about being put on the spot and trip up over their words. Sometimes, CEOs want to talk to journalists but are unclear on what would be the most effective thing for them to say. 

There’s also the need to communicate across more channels now and understand how something said in the press or on TV might show up on social media. In the digital age, Beckett warns, CEOs have to get to grips with new media and learn how to get around different platforms. “If they’re not confident, they’ve got to get confident somehow.”

Speaking to the press also naturally means being put on the spot. A business might want to speak about a specific topic but journalists will have their own agenda and be led by what their audience thinks is interesting, rather than the interviewee. 

Being human while staying on-message is always optimum

Being prepared, therefore, is key. Execs can ask for topic areas that might come up, but don’t expect to be sent an exhaustive list. Leaders will need to work with comms professionals – either internally or externally – to understand what questions could come up and how to respond to them. This will also need to identify topics the interviewee shouldn’t be drawn on (although be prepared for headlines that make that the news if it’s something the business really should have an opinion on).

“A good interview is one that isn’t rigid,” notes Gershon. Doing due diligence on a topic ahead of time is wise, so it is fresh in the mind, but if an answer sounds rehearsed, Beckett adds, it defeats the object of doing an interview in the first place. “You may as well just do a press release,” he says.

Whether organisations or individuals should offer journalists a written response or have a conversation depends on the situation. Steve O’Hear, a former reporter at TechCrunch and founder of the strategic communications agency O’Hear and Co, acknowledges that sometimes a written Q&A can be the difference between getting access to a busy executive or no access at all. Whether this work depends on the context. “Consider whether it’s a quick quote that’s needed or a genuine dialogue to inform a long-form piece,” he advises.

In the corporate world, says Lalu Dasgupta, a media consultant and the former head of communications for HSBC’s commercial banking arm, there may be a preference for written answers to ensure key points are covered. Written comments can be “more efficient, more concise and more controlled”, he suggests. 

But where written comments are used, O’Hear advises the authors of these to try and respond naturally, more akin to how they would actually speak, rather than risk the written comment coming across as too contrived. 

Beckett, however, is less open to compromise. “If you’re the CEO of a company and you can’t talk about your business, when asked about it, you probably shouldn’t be the CEO,” he says. “I’d always say it’s preferable to do an interview in-person, or at least have a phone call. It’s a journalist’s job to explain things and often they’ll do a good job of explaining things in the right language, for the audience, instead of letting the message get muddied by lots corporate terminology that might have gone through seven or eight different drafts and sign-offs.” 

Personality is fine, but keep it relevant

Interviews can also be a good opportunity to humanise a company or executive. They are a chance, Gershon says, to convey authenticity, passion and a genuine knowledge of a product of service. If a company has a CEO with a gregarious personality, communications departments or press officers should view this as an asset worth leveraging, he argues.

But O’Hear notes that there is a balance to be struck. “Being human while staying on-message is always optimum,” he says. “Some people are just good at that naturally. The key is to not let it stray into over-familiarity and too far away from what you are there to actually talk about.” 

To this end, Beckett says interviewees should apply a filter to their thought process. He explains: “If you’re the CEO of a steelworks in the North East and you want to get across that you’ve got a real passion for the area, that you want to hire and develop local talent and you know about the costs and pressures of the place, then it might be relevant for you to mention if you grew up there and support Newcastle United. But if you’re the boss of a tech company or a law firm, just shoe-horning in what football team you support into an interview will just look out of place.”

Ultimately, it is important to remember that both good and bad news can travel fast. Having a more proactive, rather than reactive, relationship with the press can be a good way of highlighting successes and mitigating setbacks. A good interview or comment offered to a journalist is one that is interesting, adds value to a debate or explains the reason why something is or isn’t happening. A bad interview or comment is treated as an indulgence in ego or couched in jargon. Ultimately, business leaders should aim to say something, rather than anything.