Gabe Zichermann is an entrepreneur, author, investor, and leader whose books, speeches and workshops focus on gamification and behavioral design. His new book is “The A-ha! Method: Communicating Powerfully in a Time of Distraction.”
When I first started as a video game executive, mastodons roamed the earth and the media training focus was on “narrative control.” I was a mere vessel for the corporate message, and the focus always had to be on delivering our story, repeating our talking points and never getting sidetracked by a supposedly hostile press. My personality was not a core part of the pitch.
Things have changed a lot since then. The press can still be hostile, but the majority of our PR clients will never have a combative media interview. They’ll be fighting on the beaches trying to break through consumer distraction and fee-focused social media algorithms to get their message across. Even if they are a B2B software company speaking to a small group of potential buyers, getting and keeping the audience’s attention has become the defining battle.
What cuts through the noise immediately? Celebrity. The algorithms that own our attentional capital are designed to give celebrities priority access to their followers, reducing the cost and increasing the impact of everything they say. Though celebrity-business tie-ins have always been important, they’ve become a booming business in and of themselves in an era where one post can reach 100 million people with minimal friction, and not even the New York Times or CNN can command that audience.
But most corporate PR strategies still dance around the idea of elevating key executives to celebrity status. Thought leadership, the benign-sounding name of such programs, tends to take great pains to present investments in individual leaders as accretive to the company as a whole and not about elevating one person over another. This is a lot like where your spouse tries to justify getting you to go to a party you don’t want to attend by framing its external benefits (“you know you’ve been trying to get Bob as a client, and he’ll be there”).
Go all-in on thought leadership
Instead, we should be all-in on celebrity building with our executives. Let’s drop the charade of thought leadership as a conservative approach and go all-out to leverage the benefits that celebrity can provide in PR terms. With the right systems and programs in place, centered around new communication skills for 21st century celebrity, we can make anyone a star.
Here’s how I structure my executive-celebrity coaching practice, and the key takeaways you can use with your clients.
- Titles matter less than stories. The most influential celebrity candidates in your organization may not be top executives. You’re looking for people with charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent (credit: RuPaul) and a great story to tell, regardless of status, background or educational achievement.
- Stories are rarely about the company. The best and most persuasive stories for celebrity media training are personal and not corporate. The ideal candidate has to be willing to get vulnerable and learn how to weave the company story back into their narrative.
- Anyone can learn charisma. We don’t just want people who have the inherent ability to persuade, but also those who are willing to learn.
- Every talk is a pitch. Business celebrities know that every touchpoint is an opportunity to persuade, and they’ve always got something to pitch.
- Focus on a-ha! moments. Every talk, pitch or interview needs to be structured around takeaways that the listener will receive as an “a-ha!” moment. The right executive-celebrity communicator always gives the audience something to think about for later.
To be clear, building a social media celebrity following is also painstaking work that takes time. But before that channel can be activated, we need to ensure we’re investing heavily in the right spokespeople and leaders.
This starts by being clear about our intentions, and creating an inclusive, results-focused program to develop future leaders through the prism of effective communication today. This is definitely a challenging battle to wage, but one that produces a lasting dividend.