CEOs Under Attack? A Lesson in Corporate Communications from GM & Apple

First it was Matt Lauer on The Today Show asking General Motors’ CEO Mary Barra if she could handle being a mother and CEO and was she selected as the CEO of General Motors because the company wanted a “maternal presence”. Next it was Apple’s Tim Cook on CNBC, being publicly outed as a gay man. The social media response towards the media was that of outrage and disgust with these incidents. Yet in both incidents the media stood by the interviews.

Why is this? What should corporate communicators learn by this and put into practice in response?

The first question is easy to answer. Despite strides made by women and minorities, the corporate boardroom is still largely dominated by white men whose ages range from the 50s to the 60s. The corporate mindset is to not shake things up and interviews are about the company not about the CEO’s personal life. Likewise despite the transformation in America regarding the LGBT community, the corporate boardroom remains largely untouched in this category. Yet this is changing, as is the concept that a CEO’s personal life is largely not part of a company’s story.

This is no longer true. Consumers are buying the story of a brand and also that of the storyteller – the CEO. Consumers expect not only to know the brand message but also the story of the CEO, President, or Chairman of the Board who communicates the brand message. This means all aspects of a CEO’s life is subject to media scrutiny. Additionally, as this happens those who do not fit the corporate stereotype of old will find they are under greater media interrogation.

Is this fair? No. But it is the nature of our society, with a far more intrusive media operating, 24/7, social media, and citizen journalists with blogs.

Corporate communicators need to understand this changing dynamic and help affect a change in the corporate culture of companies. Corporations need to recognize that society has changed. The fact that a woman can be both a CEO and mother is no different than a male being both a CEO and father. Indeed, in this post recession society, many mothers are now the primary wage winner and the father is the stay at home parent. Corporations need to reflect and understand this dynamic. As they do, the media questions will begin to change. But for this to happen, the companies must reflect in their leadership and their culture the changes that are occurring in society.

Executives need to know that their lives will be examined under a microscope. The best thing to do is address personal issues proactively. Cook’s sexual preference should never have been outed on a national interview but the better course would have been for Cook to address this long before this, very much as football player, Michael Sam addressed his sexuality. Sexuality will continue to attract curiosity until corporate cultures reflect the changes we see in society. For this to happen, corporate communications must work in tandem with the executive leadership in conveying the message and new culture.

Yes, Mary Barra and Tim Cook seemed under attack this past week. Not because of anything they had done as CEOs but rather because they don’t resemble the CEOs of old, just as America doesn’t reflect the nation it was in the 1990s. For others who will resemble Cook and Barra, following in their footsteps, the challenge must be to communicate to the media and consumers that it’s a new culture in the boardroom.

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