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Kevin Sharer: Beware the Press

Prof. Kevin Sharer

Prof. Kevin Sharer

HBS Professor Kevin Sharer, former CEO of Amgen, shares his insights on how to approach and handle the press.Harbus-Logo

Sometime in your career and perhaps much earlier than you now imagine, you will find yourself working with the press or being a subject of press interest. This possibility may conjure pleasant thoughts of personal or company recognition, a large Twitter following, a kind of earned celebrity, and having your good works and interesting personality and life story widely known. A star at a conference? Your face on the cover of a magazine? Being on a panel at Davos? The possibilities seem limitless. You will perhaps justify all the time you will spend responding to the many press requests and opportunities as just getting the story out, and if a celebration of you is part of the process, so be it. Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of very high profile healthcare startup Theranos, perhaps had that view before the press turned on her and her company. Hers is a cautionary tale.

Let’s step back to first principles. Students have told me they feel they would benefit from more focus on this vital aspect of being a leader. Leading is, among other things, about communication. While you do not and cannot control the press, they are part of your communication program and worthy of your understanding, thought, and planning. The first thought is to understand and deeply respect the role of the press in a free society. The press serves society best by informing freely and holding power accountable to the truth. Certainly some members of the press and some stories deviate from these high principles, but in the whole they get it right more than wrong in my experience. They are focused on illuminating, uncovering truth, and challenging conventional wisdom. So, the press is not your friend or ally, and if you ever think that you will regret it later. There are a few basic operating principles to keep in mind as you are beginning your journey. These might seem straightforward and obvious upon reading, but oftentimes under pressure or in the glow of attention or success, they are not always easy to implement well.

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Have a clear strategy based on some foundational elements. The story should not be about you! Make the story about the company, your products, your people, your customers, but not you. The quickest way to come off as arrogant and not focused on the business is to focus on you. The press will make this difficult because they like to write about you and it will feel flattering. They will be so friendly, seductive, and impressed by your fascinating personal story. Less is more might seem counterintuitive. Again, back to Ms. Holmes’ experience. She went to endless conferences, was featured in countless TV shows, magazine articles, speeches and all this for an early stage company with an evolving and unproven technology and as of yet no financial success. This pattern inevitably leads to over-promising or hyping which will often come back to haunt you. Ration your time and let company results be the story. Have a few, clear messages that you stick to, not unlike a political campaign and realize you will have many audiences both inside and outside the company. Have a truth teller who periodically evaluates the totality of both your and the company’s press and social media postures. Make sure you seek out and listen carefully to the hard truths. Do not tolerate flatterers.

You need a personal communications strategy to compliment and reinforce your enterprise based plans. Be prepared for each interaction. This does not mean always having prepared remarks or a tight script, but you cannot succeed by winging it. Know the reporter or forum and their perspective and past work. Have a few points to make and stick to them. Do not get drawn into a free flowing, almost friendly conversation where the press can make you so relaxed you say something you regret. This does not mean being an unfriendly, harsh robot but just be wary and careful. Above all, do not get angry or take the bait when an inflammatory or accusatory question comes along. There will be times when the question or assertion deeply offends you and it should, but your best approach is a level, thoughtful response.

One last thought is the reality of the context. You and your company will over time receive the press coverage you deserve based on the facts and the choices you make in your strategy and your behavior. This fact should give you comfort that while challenging you can develop and sustain an effective press strategy. The truth will sooner or later come out, so the idea of spin or secrets is not going to work over time. Think Volkswagen. The press is better at their game than you are, and as a 20th century figure said, they buy ink by the railcar. In the digital age, this is metaphorically even more important to realize. The other context reality is the speed of information flow and the ubiquity of sources and distribution channels. Be alert to the real time nature of the press but be measured in your reaction. The big idea here is that taking the press head on is something to do very, very rarely and only when you think you must. Most people’s experience with an open fight with the press is that you will only make the story bigger and the press will always have the last word.

So, here is the summary: respect the press but realize they are not your friend or ally; focus on the company not you; have a strategy based on clear messages, rationing your availability and preparation; and understand the context and where the balance of power truly lies. With some thought, experience, and a few hopefully not too painful learnings, you will be fine.

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November 16, 2015
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