It’s lonely at the top. The modern CEO is expected to have a voice, to articulate values and, most importantly, be available. Yet there is little to prepare even the most media savvy executive for dealing with crisis once the internal support network begins to turn on you, with many boards happy to see leaders hung out to dry.
Take the biggest medialand shock of the week: the announcement that WPP had launched a misconduct investigation against its CEO and founder Sir Martin Sorrell. The details of the allegations have not been disclosed and Sir Martin strongly denies any wrongdoing. What we do know is that Sir Martin has the enviable fortune of being both a shrew businessman and an eloquent communicator. Where the former has enabled him to amass an multibillion empire the latter has positioned Sir Martin as one of the foremost commentators on global business trends.
While his unusual frankness has cemented his brand -rightly- as elder statesman his sage-like pontifications have not always been embraced by shareholders, many of whom would rather he just kept his head down and counted the beans. Being vehemently anti-Brexit and a member of the much derided “global elite” Sir Martin also finds himself an ideal target for the ire of the right wing media. “Has the little Napoleon of ad men (who loathes Brexit) lost his magic touch?” the Mail gleeful mocked, poking fun at both his “diminutive stature” and the wisdom of his “vast remuneration”. It is hard to imagine Brexit pinups Tim Martin and James Dyson getting anywhere near as much stick.
None of this will surprise Sir Martin. He knows full well that by speaking out on issues about which he feels passionate he has exposed himself. Similarly Lord Sugar came in for a pummelling this week -this time from the left- for his provoking tweet about Jeremy Corbyn attending a rally in Nuremberg. Curiously for the Hackney bruiser, he backed down and deleted the tweet. Both these instances seem to indicate the risks for the publicly vocal CEO in politically fraught times. In many ways these figures are exceptions to the rule as both probably feel they have nothing to prove. But if even these industry titans are being put through the wringer what of the middling executive?
The memo from corporate PR is for CEOs is keep heads well below the parapet. There is something regrettable here. When an industry leader is vocal they are also open to challenge. It is right that their views are known: firstly, because they are often very informed and come with distinct world views; and secondly, so they can be scrutinised. The idea that by virtue of their status they exert undue influence over public policy is worth considering; however, the alternative, that these views are only aired behind closed doors, seems all the more sinister. Shareholders ought to see that in an increasingly crowded corporate ecosystem thought leadership from the top is a huge asset for a brand.
In order to do this, CEOs nevertheless need the support of their fellow executives as well as independent PR counsel. Neither has been particularly forthcoming for beleaguered Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, still fending off the fires ignited by the Cambridge Analytica data breach revelation. Conspicuously missing in action is the social network’s COO Sheryl Sandberg. Despite being hailed as a star communicator Sandberg has only given one brief interview since the crisis broke. Yet since joining in 2008 Sandberg has been at the heart of Facebook’s evolution from free social media site to multi-billion dollar advertising platform. By lying low she is sending a signal that she wishes to keep her hands clean, possibly with the intention of returning to politics in 2020 (she was formerly Larry Summers’s chief of staff at the Treasury).
Just imagine the field day Team Trump would have if “slippery Sheryl” were to be entangled in the scandal (even if, ironically, the data may have got Trump into the White House in the first place).
In the meantime Zuckerberg is fighting solo to retain his position. But he is by no means finished- and nor is Sir Martin. With neither Facebook nor WPP having any clear succession plans, power continues to reside with the CEOs. Both have shown dogged perseverance in building up their respective companies. It is now up to them whether they want to redouble their resilience in order to cling on.