Thumbs up or thumbs down for CEOs on Reality TV?
MarkRaganCEO: The CEOs who go undercover in "Undercover Boss" are nudged by their PR departments: http://bit.ly/cicjfE
Digging into the actual article in the Los Angeles Times, I confirmed that the lead paragraph does say that CEOs who are participating in this new reality TV series which makes the big boss work with the little people in his/her own company have been pushed to participate by their PR people. What I did not read in the article, though, is any corroboration of this assertion or any quotes from PR people about why they would have encouraged this exposure of their chief executive officer.
Which brings me to my question for all of you who are involved in communications -- would you want your CEO or a CEO client of yours to participate in a reality TV program? I wouldn't recommend it myself.
Think about the role of the CEO in your company or the companies you support from a communications standpoint. We are in less of a celebrity CEO marketplace right now, but the CEO of any company represents that firm in everything the CEO says and does. If your CEO is willing to be accessible to the media and through various non-traditional communications such as a blog or a Twitter feed, this is a good thing and can be done in a safe way. The CEO can work with internal or external experts to do as much as possible to prepare for interviews and to have written materials vetted. A CEO who is well prepared for an interview, especially a broadcast interview, will be engaging and conversational while being careful about what is revealed and how he is handling certain subjects. It is a fine line to walk and it is certainly not an easy task. With a blog post or regular contributions to a Twitter feed, the CEO can get a sanity check from a trusted communications professional before posting something if the subject matter seems fraught with risk.
There is a bit of a safety net available for the CEO and the CEO's company with all of these communications vehicles. This is not so for reality TV, which is designed to film the participants so constantly that they are eventually immune to the cameras and can be off their guard. They are also edited so conversations and situations are presented out of context for dramatic effect. Last, the people who draw the most attention on any reality TV program are the ones who are willing to talk the most and be most candid about fellow participants on camera. Given the competitive nature of most CEOs, who are paid to lead and to win for their companies, one could easily see them vying for the most camera time and the most attention, which can be dangerous to their reputation and that of their company. Since "Undercover Boss" focuses on one CEO at a time, it is less dangerous, perhaps, than a program that pits contestants against one another. However, it still presents communication risks, in my humble opinion. For one thing, in a tough economy, does it make sense for the head of a company to be using this much time in what is essentially frivolous activity, even if it does put him in touch with working people in his company he did not know previously? And shouldn't the CEO have other ways to stay connected to those people anyway? Is the contrived TV approach really necessary or are we serving up the TV equivalent of Dickens' Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future to rattle the Scrooge-like boss into behaving more like a human?
Perhaps if a CEO was notorious for being difficult and that image was hurting the company, then I might see PR suggesting that a program like this could rehabilitate that CEO's image. Even then, though, it is risky unless you have editing rights. And the rehabilitation of image can be accomplished in a much more controlled way over time without resorting to reality TV.
So for the CEOs we work with who have asked us about "Survivor" and "Dancing with the Stars," I would have to say my vote would be "don't do it." What would your vote be?