When the CEO Gets in the Way
An industry peer and I got to chatting about developments with a new start-up client at her agency. They are several months into the retainer and have worked closely with the CEO to develop their product and corporate messaging which includes presentations, web copy, marketing collateral and press materials, to name a few.
She was lamenting how the CEO isn’t getting the kind of traction the company needs with their target market and the media.
“They just aren’t getting it,” she said. “What we’re saying is not resonating.”
She showed me product and corporate information they were using and, being familiar with the industry of said start-up, I asked, “What does any of this even mean? You are using fancy words that are not part of the industry’s vernacular. No wonder they don’t get it. It’s like you’re speaking Chinese to someone in Finland. It’s not clearly stated what the company does nor the differentiation of the product from the myriad companies who seem like they’re doing something similar.”
“I know!” she agreed in frustration. “We keep going over it with him again and again but we’re just not able to nail it.”
“Have you talked to the CTO or the engineers?” I asked. “I’ve found it to be the number one way I’m able to truly wrap my arms around how a company’s technology works and what it does.”
“We haven’t ever talked to anyone on the technical team. It’s always been working directly with the CEO. But that’s a good idea,” she said.
She approached the CEO requesting face time with the engineers so they could start to track down the lost-in-translation point. The CEO pushed back and wouldn’t grant access to the technical team at first, which raised concerns immediately as to why. Why shield information that will help a team you’re paying to be stronger and more effective?
She continued pushing until they were finally granted a meeting with the head engineer. Afterward I asked her how it went.
“Everything makes sense now; how the product works, what it does, how it fits into the market and how it’s different. It was like the sky had parted and the angels started singing. We discovered another spokesperson who is very eloquent and passionate about the business that we’ll be utilizing more for thought leadership. And, we also realized that what the CEO is selling is not what is being built.” Which is an entirely separate issue.
PR people are constantly demonized by the media for not having deep enough product knowledge about the companies they represent and for filling press releases with jargon to describe the product. And, while that is true a lot of the time, PR agencies and reps are only half to blame.
Not enough companies are putting their PR/communications people (especially out-sourced) in touch with the technology departments that will help them truly understand how it all works. There is a big difference when having something explained to you by the person who is building the product versus the one selling it (especially when on commission.)
In this case, the CEO was getting in the way. He was relying on his own definitions and descriptions to dictate the corporate and product verbiage to the detriment of his communications program and his team. He was also creating more work in the long run by being out of sync with his dev team.
When a CEO (or any sales person) is out pitching a product that doesn’t fulfill what’s promised it leads to a form of crisis communications for the PR team who has to then calm upset customers and work to retain a positive brand image. Which is even more of a reason to have your PR/communications reps involved in all aspects of business, from meeting regularly with the sales team to business and product development, account management and customer service.
So, PR pro’s – ask for access! Spend consistent face time with the tech and product teams. Ask questions like:
-We’re describing the product like this, xyz, is that accurate?
-With this new product coming out, what will people be able to do with it?
-I don’t quite get how x does y. Can you help me understand, and how that impacts what we offer….
You get the gist. Do your job. Ask questions. Gather smart information and then go be smart communicators.
And companies, you’re not off the hook here either. Give your PR pro’s access! Invite them to meet with the product team, involve them with internal documents that outline product specs, share your product roadmap!
You will get smarter press materials and counsel because your team will get it and help you communicate it outward. It will also help spot communication deficiencies early on, like a CEO who is pushing a different product than what’s being built.
Nicole Jordan is a marketing and communications professional with 13 years experience in the line of fire. Having started her career in Silicon Valley during the boom, she has in-depth experience launching and maintaining marketing programs for companies that play in the space where digital media, the web and consumer products converge. She’s been on all sides of the table, logging nearly 10 years at top-tier PR agencies, running her own consultancy and then a communications and industry relations program from the inside. She’s worked with all shapes and sizes of companies, including Apple, PriceGrabber.com, HP, Clearstone Venture Partners, the Rubicon Project, ThisNext.com, Firetide Wireless, Webshots and Mobile Roadie. Nicole is a member of PRSA and regularly speaks at industry conferences and with media regarding the converging worlds of PR, communications, branding and marketing. Nicole blogs at kickingsand.com, where this piece was originally posted.