Meet Your New CEO With A Smile And An Action Plan

Southwest Airlines' CEO James F. Parker resigns abruptly in July, citing "personal reasons," including the "draining" nature of the job. Nike CEO Phil Knight calls it quits in November, with nary an explanation for his departure (although he's staying on as chairman of the board). Coca-Cola Co. struggles to find a solid CEO nearly eight years after the death of the revered Roberto C. Goizueta. McDonald's welcomes its third CEO in just seven months, with Jim Skinner taking over late last month for Charlie Bell, who abruptly resigned to fight the colon cancer detected two weeks after Bell succeeded Jim Cantalupo, who died in April of an apparent heart attack. Whether through unforeseen events or through tragic circumstances, the number of high-profile CEO transitions is on the upswing, pointing to the growing importance among PR execs (of all stripes) to have a succession plan firmly in place. Portrayed as rock stars during the late 1990s, CEOs now are seen as mere mortals who will get the hook unless they can deliver superior financial results and can demonstrate that their reputation is aboveboard. CEOs who once consolidated their power are out of fashion (read: The Walt Disney-Michael Ovitz debacle), as shareholders and corporate directors raise their level of scrutiny, leading to more exits from the C-suite. Toss in the erosion in public confidence, and even CEOs who are doing well are seen as less credible than they were just a few years ago. Senior PR execs should be "worrying a lot more" about succession plans, says PR veteran John Budd, founder and chairman of the Omega Group (New York), who in the past has worked closely with chief executives from Hallmark and Honeywell, among others. "There's no way of foretelling what the new CEO's attitudes and perceptions will be about the PR function." To avoid a crapshoot, Budd recommends that PR execs sit down (in a crisis-free environment) and "draft a memo that's written succinctly and without hyperbole about what you do, and what you are going to do, for the new CEO," he says. "Don't wait for the CEO to call on you because, if he does, it could be to replace you." Indeed, when a new CEO comes in, senior PR execs can be especially vulnerable because the boss sees PR as a personal extension and he or she may want to bring in someone who is more familiar. That's why existing PR managers have to be proactive with new leaders to prove how PR can align with the new CEO's business goals. With more companies replacing their chieftains from in-house, it also is crucial to "have some exposure to people rising to the top," says William J. Holstein, editor-in- chief of Chief Executive and author of the "Armchair MBA" column that runs in the business section of the New York Times every Sunday. When the new CEO takes charge, his or her relationship to PR "boils down to credibility," Holstein adds. "So many PR people understand the media, but don't really have a complete knowledge of the business fundamentals, so you have a better chance of surviving if you can convince the CEO that you can provide value." But even if the new CEO isn't your best friend, you can prove your mettle by having an impact during the transitional phase. "You have to be concerned with how [the new CEO] fits within the entire organization," says Chris Atkins, a 25-year PR veteran who is managing director of the Global Corporate Practice at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. Atkins, who has worked with top executives from Con Edison, Lloyd's of London, and Shell Oil Company, says the one thing PR people tend to overlook during a pending transition is to reach out to the so-called "Influencers." When there's a new regime, "you need to reach out to third-party players to stimulate discussion about the new CEO," he says. "These are people not of the company but for the company. When talking about themselves, companies now have very little credibility." Contacts: Chris Atkins, 212.880.5350,; John Budd, 212.588.9415; William J. Holstein, 201.930.5925,

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