Your CEO shouldn’t be the center of your PR program
Why customers can be key to your media relations success.
Grace Williams is BLASTmedia’s senior vice president overseeing account services.
Companies often default to using their CEO as their main spokesperson — but should they? In some cases, it makes sense. CEOs have a vision for where the company is headed, and if they are a founder/CEO, they also have the historical context of where the company has been. And while the founder brand can play a huge role in telling your company’s story, you ultimately want the brand to outlast the founder, not the other way around. After all, you’ve heard of Zendesk and DocuSign, but can you name their founders without Googling?
The CEO might be a good one-stop shop for a quick company overview, but are they the best person to comment on a new product feature? Offer perspective on the day-to-day struggles of your users? Give real-life context and insight into the solution in action? They might be a bit too far removed.
Consider your role. I work in PR and am most interested in hearing from PR experts and others who lead day-to-day operations at an agency — people who deal with the issues I handle every day. Because they’re in the trenches like me, they’re a great source for solutions, tips and tools they’ve tried. That logic applies to our clients, too. Security startup? Media wants to hear from your VP of Information Security — not just your CEO.
I predicted back in 2021 that we would start seeing fewer quotes from CEOs in favor of more applicable insights from line-of-business leaders. This is happening already. A review of 100+ quote placements our agency secured in Q1 of 2023 revealed CEOs are only quoted 30% of the time, a number far lower than I anticipated. The go-to leaders most commonly quoted in addition to CEOs? Marketing professionals, product leaders and execs in HR and DEIB. But why?
CEOs are inherently biased — and they should be! They believe in their company, and they want you to as well. But journalists want real stories of real people using real products and seeing real success — not the corporate jargon CEOs sometimes push. Journalists want numbers, data and proof — not empty promises.
So, who else can you use?
If not the CEO, then who should you lean on for quotes, commentary and content? A few ideas:
- Lower-level subject matter experts. Anyone inside your organization living in the day-to-day with tangible, actionable takeaways to offer. The title will depend on the types of coverage you want to secure and the media vertical. Let’s say you’re an HR tech company seeking a placement in HR.com. Work with your head of people operations or DEIB leader.
- Data as a spokesperson. Let the numbers tell the story! Quality third-party research, owned data in large sample sizes, or publicly available data you’ve mined and infused with context are great resources to tell a story — as long as they’re straightforward, unbiased and unique.
- Investors, analysts and board members. When you can, lean into these experts to offer third-party validation and expertise. Media expects insight on the market/industry from your CEO, but when a prominent investor or a CISO sitting on your board backs those insights? Now that’s meaningful.
- Getting a customer involved in PR efforts can be a serious force multiplier because they check all the boxes: Third-party perspective. In the day-to-day. Often possessing data to back up their claims about your product or service. But getting them on board? That’s a lot easier said than done.
Integrating customers into your PR program
Of the above ideas on alternate spokespeople we might leverage in our storytelling, the biggest roadblock we encounter is finding customers willing to share their thoughts and experiences. One of the first things a new client often shares during onboarding is the difficulties they experience in trying to get their customers engaged in marketing in PR. Customers don’t want to give away their “secret sauce” and run into trouble with approvals from legal. Consider these tips:
- Know which customers to tap. Customers vary in their willingness to participate in marketing efforts — and that extends to PR. Some customers will take a call with customer success and offer feedback, and that’s where it ends. Others will let you use their logo on your website. And some are true evangelists, proactively offering feedback and ideas for new features, leaving positive reviews and engaging on your customer advisory board. Those evangelists are the ones to think about integrating into PR.
- Make sure they understand the benefits. Time is money, and you’re asking your customers to take time to benefit you. So, give them something in return. Explain how you’re helping them build their personal brand and highlight their company’s innovation. If free PR isn’t enough, consider offering a discount on technology or services.
- Dip a toe in the water first or risk a flop. Stairstep opportunities to increase your customers’ comfort with media. Maybe it’s a mention in a press release first, then a quote in a piece of content, then a bylined article about their experience with your product. Ultimately, you’ll want to run them through media training and get them on the phone with a reporter. Before that happens, make sure they’re fully prepped with a briefing sheet, list of metrics and a reminder not to cut you out of the story.
- Things to watch out for. Sometimes it doesn’t make tactical sense to involve your customers in PR. Keep a close eye on the account to understand if it’s the best time to reach out. Did they recently have turnover? Lose their favorite account rep? Request a feature that isn’t finished yet? Experience a drop in results? Maybe hold off on asking. Also hold off if there are tons of other marketing asks (like case studies) coming their way in short succession, or if they have a big launch of their own coming up.
But back to your CEO…
It of course doesn’t make sense to have a hard and fast rule that your CEO can never be quoted in media. Sometimes, leaning on them for perspective is the most effective strategy. For example:
- When they’re already engaged in PR — If you have a CEO who loves PR, participates in the program, runs with the opportunities you send their way, and is a great spokesperson. By all means, keep using them!
- When they’re a subject matter expert — There are different types of CEOs. Those leading based on day-to-day experience in the field and those exceptional at running a business. If you’re working with DevOps media and your CEO has rich developer experience, they’re a relevant source for that story. For the business leader CEO, maybe they’ve scaled and sold five companies, and you’re working with a reporter on a story about how to prep a business for sale. Again, they’re a relevant source for that story.
- When they’re already a media darling — If journalists love writing about your CEO, she is regularly invited to speak on podcasts and your inbox overflows with inbound requests for her — don’t turn them down. If a journalist requests to speak specifically with your CEO, your lowest lift to positive coverage is finding an available time on her calendar to take the call.
- For big, corporate news. Funding round, acquisition or otherwise. Your CEO’s perspective and opinion are incredibly important here. Journalists will expect to hear from them.
Relying on your CEO to be the center of your PR program will leave you low on results due to lack of availability, hyper-relevant perspective, and oftentimes, willingness to take an interview. The wider your bench of spokespeople, the more PR allies you’ll create internally, and the more opportunities you’ll be able to turn into coverage. Consider involving subject matter experts of all kinds, both internally and externally, and your PR program will flourish.
Beautiful! The super-bright like this writer, Alison Carter and Sherri Kolade often don’t last long on the job because they get promoted or hired away to do other work.