Ten Observations about Executive Profiles


The executive profile has long been a staple of business journalism. But given some changes to the media world itself, here are some observations about the current state of the executive profile and some lessons PR functions can consider.

  1. Fortune has always favored profiles of well-known CEOs of large companies — witness the deluge of cover stories on Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs. If Fortune does not profile a well-known company or CEO, it then turns to a lieutenant (they’re always called lieutenants, never colonels, I don’t know why). For example: “Warren Buffett’s Mr. Fix-It.”
  2. Fortune does run articles on CEOs of smaller companies, though generally the company has to be a cool, innovative startup.
  3. Fast Company profiles lesser-known executives with an interesting story to tell. It helps if the if they executive — doesn’t have to be a CEO — works at well-known. Example: “How Nike’s CEO Shook Up the Shoe Industry,” which graced the cover of the print version under the headline: “The World’s Most Creative CEO: Nike’s Mark Parker Uses Elite Athletes, Artists & His Own Show Designs to Drive a $34 Billion Business.”
  4. The different headlines for the print and online articles provides a lesson into what might sell as a cover line for print as opposed to what you need for a good, search-optimized headline for the online space. The Online headline is shorter, mentions keywords faster (Nike, CEO and shoe) and avoids words that aren’t search-relevant (artists, athletes, creative, elite, and Mark Parker).
  5. Forbes runs profiles of CEOs at large companies to depict a buy or sell opportunity or profiles of small, private companies as an opportunity of what to watch and invest in if the company ever goes public. Fortune and Fast Company often write profiles that offer lessons learned or interesting case studies. Forbes often seems to select executives based on the magazine’s contrarian perspective.
  6. The articles are detailed and well researched, but they tend to show one aspect of the executive. Whether Fortune, Fast Company, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek — all the profiles generally have a single narrative, no matter how lengthy. Fast Company likes creativity or innovation so their articles often portray those qualities. Fortune and Forbes like turnaround stories (but you really have to prove that turnaround has occurred (more on this, below). Forbes in particular likes to tell stories that have a lot of drama to them, a CEO undertaking a heroic struggle to launch or save a company.
  7. Only after a downfall or misstep, will a follow-up story show a more nuanced portrayal of the executive. For example, Mark Hurd got tremendous, positive coverage (including a Forbes cover story) since taking over H-P in 2005. However, after he was pushed out last month, suddenly stories appeared that said a lot of employees did not like Hurd and that, while great at cutting costs, he was not a great manager, and made some short-term gains at the expense of long-term investments — and that the alienation of employees and his own board were large factors in the decision to fire Hurd. (I’m not taking sides here, I’m merely pointing out that a different take on the impact of Hurd’s management style came to light only after he had left the company.) The same is true for Alex Bogusky, the former co-chairman of Crispin Porter + Bogusky was cited in dozens of Fast Company articles over the past few years, with always glowing anecdotes, quotes, etc. It’s only after he stepped down that we get a more complete picture. In “Alex Bogusky Tells All: He Left the World’s Hottest Agency to Find His Soul,” we find out thata Bogusky could be a tyrant at work (basically telling everyone in his then-Miami offices that the company was going to relocate shortly to Boulder, CO, and cutting out key members who stayed in Miami), that he fired a great copywriter one time to make the point that no one’s job was sacred, etc. Some of the aspects of being a bad boss are not unique to Bogusky. But it didn’t seem too difficult for Fast Company to find people who provided the Bogusky-as-bad-boss storyline after he stepped down.
  8. The point is that if you do manage a high profile visibility campaign for your executive, negative stories could appear after that executive leaves the company. Usually those postmortem stories don’t make the companies look that good (even H-P after making the decision to get rid of Hurd) — so companies should be prepared that negative stories could arise at that time.
  9. Telling a turnaround story to get the attention of the national business media is difficult. For public companies, you need to show a certain number of quarters of positive results — and you need validation from analysts who go on record saying that the company has turned around. Sometimes organizations want to tell a corporate change story, but again, you need hard, objective facts to make that case to a reporter. (A decade ago, a client wanted to tell Fortune and BusinessWeek they had made a significant shift in their culture, exemplified by an increase in their US marketing budget of $10 million — which could have been an interesting hook, except that their overall US marketing budget, which did not go to us, was already at $90 million; the story did not fly because the reporters did not feel a 10 percent increase actually represented a culture change — a point we had made before contacting the reporters.)
  10. You need to have a good story. This seemingly obvious point often gets overlooked. A good story could be a stock increase, entry into a new market, the success of a new technology or device. It often is not the fact that a company has signed a new partnership deal that has no dollar amount attached to it. It combines a good narrative with objective facts. And, PR functions need to figure out the payoff for the the reporter and outlet. By payoff, I mean: what will the readers get after spending time with the article: will it be an investment idea, a management tip, something for them to try or buy? Too often, we forget to think about what need for the reader that the story we’re pitching will address and solve. But it’s a key aspect that editors consider.

Points 7 and 8 may not be relevant for most PR functions out there, but I was struck by recent coverage at how much negative information about celebrity CEOs did not make it into profiles that had helped establish these CEOs as celebrities.

Let me know if you agree or disagree with these observations.

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