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  • Writer's pictureMindy Hamlin

Learning from Others Lesson 2: Chris Licht and PR Lessons for New CEOs

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

I have been fascinated by the story surrounding CNN's ex-Chairman and CEO Chris Licht. His tenure, as many media outlets have pointed out, was rocky from the beginning. The Atlantic's profile of Licht, written by Tim Alberta, did not help. He was fired days after its publication, providing us with many PR lessons new CEOs and their PR teams can learn from.

Man being interview with microphones
Man being interviewed with microphones

While I do not know the CNN communication team's role or recommendations to Licht regarding communicating with staff and reporters, they are being held accountable. At least two PR execs were fired the same day as Licht.


To be sure, there is a lot going on in the 15,000-word piece. There are also some great PR lessons for new CEOs and their communications teams. Two major missteps stood out to me and are a reminder of the importance of internal communication and media boundaries.


LESSON #1: New leaders should listen first. Speak later. The day after I read Alberta's article, I was at my son's school and was greeted by this quote from Stephen Covey, "Seek first to understand and then to be understood." Every new executive and manager should heed this advice.


According to Alberta's reporting, Licht did not try to build relationships with staff, understand their concerns, or listen to their ideas. Instead, he talked endlessly about how he was going to take CNN back to its roots before, he argued, the channel had become known for its criticisms of then-President Trump. He also criticized the staff's work during COVID. A criticism he shared with Alberta. As a result, staff felt no loyalty to him, and he missed an opportunity to work with leaders within CNN to champion his vision and encourage others to do the same.

Lesson Learned: CEOs should listen first. It's good PR. By listening, CEOs learn about the staff and their concerns, while also building an understanding of the work they do and their ideas for making the organization stronger. Everyone wants to be heard and wants to feel that the new boss has an interest in their accomplishments and strengths. Instead, Licht jumped right in with his vision and was very clear that he thought the channel had lost its way by its fixation on President Trump and the pandemic without recognizing the great work they had also done and the challenges they faced.


So what role does the comms team play when a new CEO arrives? They are the hosts. The intermediaries who introduce the CEO to his new team and the team to its new leader. Here are some steps the comms team can take to contribute to a smooth transition.

  1. Identify goals for a change communication campaign. These goals can be very simple: 1) Staff feel engaged and heard; 2) Staff understands and supports CEO's vision and plans for the future. The plan can be measured by a staff survey at different points in the campaign.

  2. Outline possible goals for the CEO's introduction. Discuss the campaign goals with the CEO. If possible, do this before their first day. Discuss their vision for the organization and the messages they want to communicate to employees. From here, you can create a messaging and talking points document that meets the needs of the CEO and the staff.

  3. Propose a listening tour to introduce the CEO to staff. If the CEO does not recommend a listening tour, the comms team should make the case for one, even if it is brief. Underscore the importance of providing staff an opportunity to welcome the CEO, share their thoughts, and ask questions.

  4. Create a communication calendar and messaging document. The calendar should span six months to a year and should include regular communication (in-person, email, video) between the CEO and staff. Messaging should be specific to the event and support the overall goals of the campaign. It can be updated as needed. One pain point for staff, and Alberta, is that they did not understand how Licht wanted to achieve his vision. The only message they heard was CNN's past coverage had been too one-sided and too focused on Trump and COVID. In other words, all they heard was the team did bad work without an action plan. By creating a schedule of events, along with messages and talking points, the CEO will be able to clearly and consistently communicate their vision.

 

Anecdote Alert One CEO liked to say in his first months at a U.S. airport that its condition was "embarrassing," despite the fact it had recently opened a new terminal that was widely praised. Instead of acknowledging the great work the staff had done, he focused on what hadn't been done. Staff were deflated, and, as a result, worried about their jobs. The comms team faced a challenge: How could they boost employee morale, while also introducing the CEO to his team and their accomplishments? I worked with the internal communication manager to create a video of major projects and crises the team had navigated together before the CEO's arrival. The video featured interviews with staff and focused on the teamwork it took to complete these projects

and tackle crises. The staff loved seeing their work put on display. The CEO said, "Wow, I didn't know you guys did all that." But he would have known had he listened first.

 

LESSON #2: Set ground rules before a media interview -- with the reporter and your CEO.

Alberta interviewed Licht over several months. In one that has been greatly derided, he was on hand for Licht's early morning workout. Licht's trainer is also quoted in the story. On another occasion, Licht smacks his hands on a table as he mocked CNN's COVID coverage. One of CNN's comms people was on hand, but it does not appear he weighed in during these particular interactions. From a PR perspective, why? Why did the comms team allow a reporter so much unfettered access to the CEO? This isn't about Alberta. He did a great job. He interviewed Licht and CNN staff. He reported what he learned. The problem was the interview process and Licht.


Lessons learned: Perhaps the comms team prepared Licht for the interviews, but it didn't appear that way. The following steps will help you ensure your CEO is prepared for the interview and stays on message:

  1. Understand the reporter's purpose for the interview. Ask what they want to discuss and want to learn from the interview.

  2. Set parameters for the interview. Ensure interviews take place in an environment that remains professional and protects the CEO. In other words, having drinks at a bar, probably not a good idea. At the gym? Again, not a good idea. After meeting with Alberta several times, Licht became too comfortable with him. The CEO should be prepared and take the interview as seriously as they did the very first one. In interviews, everyone, including CEOs, must remember that they are speaking on behalf of the brand and its employees, as well as themselves.

  3. Set goals for the interview. Why is the CEO doing the interview? What do they hope to achieve? Outline the goals and purpose of the interview.

  4. Identify key messages and talking points. Identify key messages, talking points, and supporting examples. Licht kept telling Alberta he wanted to change the news channel, but he gave no specifics, something the reporter pointed out.

  5. Create a briefing sheet. It should include interview logistics, reporter bio, links to past articles, and information on the news outlet. The articles are so you and the CEO understand the reporter's style. The briefing sheet should also include key messages, talking points, and examples to support and illustrate the CEO's key points. Don't forget possible questions, with answers, the reporter may ask.

  6. Practice. Carve out time for the CEO to practice answering questions.

Everyone, even the best spokespeople, always prepare for interviews and conduct them armed with their purpose and their messages. Your CEO shouldn't be any different.


Does your executive team need training on how to prepare for and nail their media interviews? We can help. Contact us today to learn more about our media trainings.




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