Published: 10 October 2014

Dealing with CEOs who don’t understand the media

Do you work in a press office? If so, there’s a very good chance you’ll have met a CEO who simply doesn’t understand the media. Here are eight questions your CEO might ask and some advice on how to deal with them.

1. Will the journalist distort my message?

You can mitigate the risk of messages being distorted by dealing with journalists you trust. Developing these relationships is always worth the effort. Explain to your anxious CEO that the story ending up not quite as anticipated is a risk worth taking in order to get your message out there. If your CEO is being interviewed make sure they’re properly briefed about your key messages and any potential areas of contention.

2. Can I see the copy before it’s published?

The short answer is “No”. If you ask it will probably irritate the journalist. If you’re dealing with very sensitive issues you can tactfully ask to see what they’ve written, but don’t turn the copy into a mess of tracked changes.

3. Has this been signed off by everyone?

Getting sign off can be a complete nightmare. The danger is you end up with a press release written by a committee that reads like an official document. There are three possible ways around this. One is to plan far enough in advance to factor in sufficient time to get your text cleared. The second is to agree the number of people to check what’s been written. The third is to give people a strict deadline: if they don’t respond by that time you can assume the text is ready to go.

4. Can we use a less negative headline?

Many CEOs are afraid to stick their neck out. The problem is those who are too cautious and anodyne won’t get a look-in from the media. For comment pieces you must have a strong point of view. Phrases like “welcomes the new government report” or “launches exciting new product” will result in your story heading straight to the deleted items folder.

5. Why is your press release so long?

There’s a myth that press releases must only be one side of A4. Although you should be able to sum up your story in a couple of lines, bear in mind that a features writer will think, “can I get 800 words out of this?” The counter argument is if a journalist wants more they will get back to you. Well, they might, but if time is pressing they want everything they need to write the story in one go. The way around this is to include all extra information in notes to editors and a link to the appropriate page on your website.

6. Why wasn’t the story picked up?

The interview takes place, your CEO expects the story to appear the next day but it doesn’t. It could be that they haven’t written it yet, the content wasn’t interesting enough or there was a Royal wedding/Government crisis/celebrity scandal. Sadly, there’s no way around unexpected events, but you should anticipate competing news stories.

7. Why aren’t you on the phone complaining?

Sometimes journalists get things wrong. This is usually an oversight rather than malicious intent. When your CEO goes on the rampage and demands you complain, take a breather. If they’ve got their facts wrong and it’s a significant error you can ask for a retraction. But if it’s quibbling over things like the interpretation of the term ‘service users’ it may be best to let things lie rather than irritate the journalist.

8.What use is the media anyway?

There are CEOs who just don’t see the point of media relations. To them it’s just a nuisance, taking up too much time and effort. The best way to deal with these people is to show how a strong media presence has resulted in other organisations raising money. Also, go back to your charity’s core business objectives and show how the media can help to achieve them.


Anne Nicholls, communications consultant, freelance

Anne is a communications consultant with 25 years' experience within a wide range of public and not-for-profit organisations. She specialises mainly in media relations and corporate communications within the health and education sectors.