How to Avoid Profiling a PR Meltdown

Businessman clinging to up arrow among down arrow around.

In crisis communications and even in proactive, positive public relations, we’re instructed early on to never, and I mean never, cede your brand narrative. PR professionals must protect and defend it at all costs to prevent it from being wrestled away by a customer, reporter, or, rarely, one of their executives.

The recent debacle at CNN underscores the urgency with which communicators must act as gatekeepers of this narrative and how they ultimately possess the power to help elevate or sink their brands.

For those following the saga of Chris Licht, it wasn’t surprising when the Chair and CEO of CNN Worldwide was fired on June 7 due to numerous previous leaks about his management style, along with high-profile embarrassments such as the firing of anchor Don Lemon and questionable production decisions surrounding the Donald Trump town hall broadcast.

What was shocking was what ultimately forced Licht’s ousting: a profile of him in The Atlantic in which the former CEO and his PR staff granted reporter Tim Alberta full access to him for an entire year. The result was a 15,000-word cringe fest entitled “Inside the Meltdown at CNN” that painted the veteran newsman as a miscast CEO: petty, out of touch, and not up to the task.

While Licht may have been flattered by the offer of a profile at first, it was up to his comms team to point out the drawbacks of such prolonged, intense coverage. They were responsible for protecting Licht from himself and putting the kibosh on such excessive and unreasonable access. After all, any PR pro knows that the longer you provide access, the more opportunity there is for something to go wrong. Not surprisingly, Licht’s comms team was fired within hours of their former boss.

Best Practices for Executive Profiles

To ensure your leadership profile doesn’t go sideways and achieves the desired result, consider these best practices:

Define objectives: What are the goals and key messages you want to convey through the profile? Determine what aspects of your CEO’s story, expertise or vision you want to highlight.

Choose the right reporter: Select a business reporter who has written several well-received profiles and understands your industry. Research their previous work and ensure they have a track record of producing thoughtful and accurate pieces.

Tim Alberta was highly respected for his coverage of figures across the business and political spectrum. It’s been reported that Licht’s story was one he wanted to cover so badly that he was prepared to do it with or without the CEO’s cooperation: to see if Licht could really pull off transforming a cable network now perceived as too left-leaning by much of the country into one worthy of its old tagline, “the most trusted name in news.”

Set the parameters: Agree on exactly where and when the reporter will have access to your chief executive, and for how long. More than two opportunities to speak to them and see them in action begins to feel excessive. Never allow for unmonitored access, such as providing the CEO’s mobile number, in the event the reporter tries to text them without your knowledge.

Prep your CEO: Ensure they understand the purpose of the profile and what key messages and parts of the business they should emphasize. Ahead of interviews, we always provide our client’s spokesperson with background information about the reporter and the publication. Role play by conducting mock interviews, with your PR staff acting as the reporter so the CEO can practice answering the most obvious and challenging questions.

While a comms team member should be present at all interviews or photoshoots, they should strive to remain in the background. Exceptions include if the CEO doesn’t have information at their fingertips that they need to fully answer a question or an issue which might be better provided off the record or on background.

Craft a compelling narrative: Develop an authentic story showcasing your CEO’s accomplishments, leadership style and vision for the company. Find ways to connect that narrative to broader industry trends to make it more engaging and relatable.

“Produce” the interview setting(s): Select an appropriate location for the exchange, whether it’s the CEO’s office, a neutral environment or even an outside-of-the-box site that illustrates the company’s values. It should make sense, unlike the Manhattan gym where Licht was profiled taking part in his early morning workout. Perhaps the former CEO felt like he was truly able to be free to be himself in those moments, but it did nothing positive for CNN, its employees or its audience members.

Fact-check: Part of what you should negotiate with the reporter up front is the opportunity to review a draft of the piece to ensure the accuracy of the quotes, data, and other information attributed to your CEO to avoid misrepresentation.

Still, a PR professional’s work isn’t done once the profile posts, publishes or airs. Track the reach and impact of the profile. This means closely monitoring traditional media coverage, social media mentions, and any business opportunities or other outreach that may arise from the profile.

When handled properly, media profiles are an excellent opportunity to shape public perception and build credibility. This means doing everything in your power to ensure the final story reflects your CEO and your brand in the best possible light and, of course, conveys the narrative you intended.


T.J. Winick is Senior Vice President of Issues Management Group.