Smart Chief Executives Know the Power of Words

Smart Chief Executives Know the Power of Words
By Mitch Leff, Leff & Associates. Leff has provide media training for clients for more than 25 years. Learn more at and schedule your media training today!

For top executives charged with leadership, there is a power in words.  It’s an opportunity to create and build, or to cause lasting damage.  What you say really does matter, and businesses and government leaders who are trained to maximize that trump-inaugurationpotential will have a real advantage.

Often executives are so fearful of saying the wrong thing that they choose to say nothing at all.  Many organizations respond to potentially negative situations by hiding their CEOs away from inquiring reporters. Others go to the other extreme: allowing their CEOs to say whatever they want, with no forethought, filter or planning.

So, let’s find the balance point between those two positions. It’s a place where your executives can speak to media and other key audiences with confidence, clearly articulating your messages, and offering a clear solution, direction, or “call to action.”

C-level execs who have gone through even a basic media training session (most are re-trained annually) are confident and capable enough to interact with media outlets (print, broadcast, online, social), in a manner that’s productive to both reporter and company. They understand the role and goals of the media outlet. It’s not about “spinning the truth,” but rather knowing how to deliver accurate, honest information to your audiences.

The ability to deliver information and opinions through the media is a tactic that corporations and governments often utilize to achieve their goals. It ranges from trying to sell a product or service, encouraging attendance at an event, raising money for a non-profit or influencing the decisions people make in the voting booth.

Often reporters look to company executive or government officials to comment on important issues, from economic issues to healthcare to product recalls. Serving as an expert source for media interviews is a great way to increase your company’s “awareness level” and, the theory goes, pump up sales and profits as well. After all, if no one’s ever heard of your company they’re not likely to buy your products!

The Importance of Media Training

But while well-chosen words can help a business, ill-chosen ones can have serious negative consequences. With the opportunity to present your views through the media, comes the onus of using that “bully pulpit” responsibly. That means making sure that you are confident, comfortable and prepared for every interview and that you are clear on what you want to say.

mylanBeing ill-prepared and “winging” an interview is a recipe for disaster. Mylan CEO Heather Bresch failed terribly on CNBC last year as she tried to explain the high cost of her company’s epi pens. And pharma exec Martin Shkreli was classically tone deaf in interviews as he talked about the 5000 percent increase he ordered for a drug his company manufactured.

The absence of a spokesperson in a crisis can be equally damaging. In a crisis, customers and other key audience want to be informed. They look for an authority figure to be an informative, calming voice.  A few years ago, we watched a cruise line incident where it took company officials days to get a high-level executive in front of the cameras. When your passengers are tweeting photos and video of abysmal shipboard conditions, holding your CEO back only exacerbates the situation and creates a perception of disorganization and lack of caring.

So why is it that some people seem to revel in the media spotlight, and are often sought after by reporters for their knowledge and expertise, while others flounder when the camera starts rolling?

I’ve been told often by reporters that they can easily spot an executive who’s received some training, and they appreciate that effort.

Successful executives:

  • Understand the dynamics that drive the media and what reporters need for their stories
  • Know in advance what they want to say
  • Practice delivering their messages many times before the interview, either with colleagues or with a professional media trainer.
  • Anticipate — as much as possible — all the questions a reporter might ask, the negative possibilities as much as the positive ones.

Be Prepared

In recent weeks, there’s been much talk among companies about preparing for potential tweets from our new President. Several companies have seen their stock prices drop after 140 character POTUS postings. CEOs must prepare for a proper response in case their industry in general, or their company, is targeted or impacted.

The time to think about preparing your CEO for interviews isn’t as you’re towing your cruise ship to port with 3,000 screaming passengers aboard or when your restaurant chain is trying to figure out by thousands of customers have food poisoning.

The time to train is now, when things are quiet and controllable.

If you prepare well, you end up as a regular in the newspapers, on the radio and television. If you don’t, you’re featured as a late-night punch line on the Tonight Show or being chased through a parking lot by Fox5’s Randy Travis.


Mitch Leff 2013Mitch Leff is President of Leff & Associates ( and has provided public relations and media training services to clients in Atlanta and across the country for 30 years.

Contact:, 404-861-4769


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