As Business Presenter of Sky News, I am always going to argue that it is now essential for a successful chief executive to look and sound convincing on television. Yet it would be surprising if those who make the key appointments on Britain’s plc boards had not also reached a similar conclusion.
Look at some of the most recent executive hires. Tesco has just replaced Philip Clarke, a man who for all his abilities, never looked particularly comfortable in television interviews with Dave Lewis who, on the basis of his first round of television interviews, is perfectly at home in the medium. Or Serco, where Chris Hyman – a chief executive who very seldom, if ever, did television interviews – has made way for Rupert Soames, a gifted and approachable communicator who is relaxed with all forms of media.
Other recent appointees in the FTSE- 100 all have the ability to do television interviews with ease, from those running consumer-facing brands, such as Mike Coupe at J Sainsbury and Gavin Patterson at BT Group to those running business-to-business operators such as Andrew Mackenzie at BHP Billiton, a more outgoing chief executive than his more private predecessor, Marius Kloppers.
That is not to say that looking and sounding good on television is the only prerequisite that makes a communications star. Good communications with the shareholder and analyst communities are also essential, as is an easy manner with the print media, while internal stakeholders – what in easier times used to be called the ‘staff’ of a business – also need to be kept onside.
This raises the single most important relationship that any chief executive has – the one with his or her chairman. History is littered with examples of a CEO being ousted when they have failed to get this right, and for good reason. The best chairmen, along with other non-executive directors, will be subtly passing messages from key shareholders to their CEO on a constant basis and, crucially, reminding them what they need to be telling them and showing investors. On some occasions, they will be doing all the key communicating themselves, such as the day in July 2012 when revelations over alleged Libor-rigging obliged Bob Diamond to step down as chief executive of Barclays. It would have been the easiest thing in the world that afternoon and evening for the bank not to have put anyone up for interview but simply hide behind its communications team and press releases. But Marcus Agius, the then chairman of Barclays, “manned up”, in the words of my Sky News predecessor Jeff Randall, appearing not only on Jeff’s show that night but also making numerous calls to the print media to explain the situation.
Some chief executives are natural communicators. It comes to the likes of Tidjane Thiam at Prudential, Steve Holliday at National Grid or Harriet Green at Thomas Cook, to name a few, so naturally that one could easily imagine them working as a television or radio presenter if ever they were tempted to step aside from the exertions of high office.
Others are better at it than they think they are: Stuart Gulliver, the HSBC chief executive, has never – to the best of my knowledge – given a television interview. This is a great shame, since he possesses both a ready wit and a knowledge of the banking industry that is almost peerless, making him a very strong communicator.
This may be because Mr Gulliver feels that, as a senior figure in an industry that remains largely unpopular with the public, he might be made a whipping boy for the entire sector. It would be understandable if Sam Laidlaw, the outgoing chief executive of Centrica, had decided for similar reasons to limit his appearances on the broadcast media.
Of course, some companies do not help themselves in how they deal with the media, often by inflicting wounds on themselves. A classic example is how some businesses decide they can do without a director of corporate communications but instead put overall responsibility for communications in the hands of the investor relations director or, worse, the group legal director. In such circumstances – and one well-known FTSE-100 company is in the process of doing just that – it does not matter how effective a communicator the chief executive is. A legal director sees their job in terms of stopping bad things from happening. A good director of corporate communications is all about making things happen, whether that is getting out positive messages about a business or, in some scenarios, trying to explain what has gone wrong when bad things happen.
And here, it is impossible not to return to Mr Laidlaw. He was barely five months into the job at Centrica when, just two days after Christmas in 2006, four of the company’s employees were killed when the helicopter that was taking them back from a gas rig in the Irish Sea crashed in Morecambe Bay. Within hours, Mr Laidlaw was on the scene, attending a press conference at Blackpool police station and taking leading efforts to retrieve the bodies of the dead men, the pilot and their fellow passengers. It was a classy display that proves good leadership and good communications are, inevitably, intertwined.