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Top 5 CEO public affairs mistakes

Leaders do not often suffer from a lack of self-confidence. Important in some leadership settings, that same trait can often lead to political and public affairs mistakes.

Even very recent history is littered with the mistakes made by leaders whether that is off-the-cuff comments, arrogance in the face of political or media scrutiny, a failure to deal with behaviour and cultural matters, or a failure to recognise the depth of the problems facing them.

All these can have a direct impact on political relations and particularly reputations.

For those in public affairs it can be useful to identify mistakes made in the political field so some coping or avoidance mechanisms can be put in place.

  1. Ignoring the strategy – it is not that a public affairs strategy is lacking, or that they are not aware of it. Instead they choose to ignore it. The strategy here? Do your best to have a risk strategy in place and try to keep close to what they are up to. A good relationship with the CEO’s PA or secretary can be essential in public affairs.
  2. Going off at a tangent – this is the rule of personal interest. Instead of sticking to the script they prefer to talk about what interests them or to show off their undoubted political skills and understanding. There is nothing better a politician likes better than to be told how to do politics but someone with no direct political experience. The strategy? Aside from trying to keep the CEO on track, it might be possible for the personal interests of a CEO to be reflected in the strategy to try them on message.
  3. Not paying attention – the ‘butterfly effect’ – the attention span of many senior executives can be limited so it becomes your job to do the follow-up, keep track of promises made and to keep them focused on the outcomes that could require longer term attention.
  4. Over demanding – certainly internally but with political audiences as well. The political equivalent of ‘do you know who I am?’ can mean that they are only interested in aiming for the top in political terms. There can be an expectation management management job to do but also a responsibility on the public affairs team to only use the senior team at the right time. That means a large degree of responsibility for the public affairs team and a need to appreciate at which meetings the right people need to be deployed.
  5. Not valuing the team – the leadership self-confidence can have a number of consequences, as described above but a critical one for the public affairs team can be a lack of confidence in them, actions that undermine them or, worse still, contradicting them which can undermine the whole strategy. The main advice to the team has to be to work together, draw in expertise from across the organisation to help insulate from potential attack and build up resilience together.

An organisation’s public affairs team can prevent leadership mistakes from being made or can help sweep up afterwards but only if it’s role is recognised.

Maybe a CEO needs to be saved a few times by their public affairs team so this recognition comes.

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Stuart Thomson

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist at Bircham Dyson Bell LLP advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has worked on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including 'New Activism and the Corporate Response', 'Public Affairs in Practice' (for the CIPR) and 'The Dictionary of Labour Quotations' (published by Britain's leading political publisher, Biteback). 'New Activism and the Corporate Response' was called a book that "every aspiring business leader should read" by MIS Asia. Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues. Stuart recently released a book published by Urbane Publications, 'Public Affairs: News, Views and Hullabaloos' based on his blog. He is also a CIPR trainer and was shortlisted for the 2014 Director of the Year award by the IoD and CIPR.

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