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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Winning the PR Wars

Embrace electronic communications. Blogs, Web sites, social networking sites, and search engines all have huge implications for companies, because these channels threaten the loss of control over the flow of corporate information and over company brand names. Yet the vast majority of today’s CEOs built their careers long before the Internet reached its current level of sophistication. “The CEOs of the largest 50 companies in the world are practically hiding under their desks in terror about Internet rumors,” crisis manager Eric Dezenhall told Business Week.

What, then, should CEOs do? Getting early alerts about online activity around the world is essential. This means watching blogs and social sites, and being sensitive to “buzz.” To blog or not to blog is another key question. Not everyone can be Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of Sun Microsystems, who maintains an extensive blog. Although Microsoft’s top brass isn’t blogging externally, the company does have 5,000 employee bloggers who engage with audiences online. Other companies, like Dell, have appointed “chief bloggers,” whose jobs center on defusing complaints about Dell’s service.

Because of the proliferation of media channels, companies must learn to engage in the public debate in a way that integrates various outlets, such as online, print, and television. The old days of just putting out a press release are long gone. David Neeleman, the former chairman of JetBlue, wrote an e-mail of apology to every customer affected by his company's extensive flight delays in February 2007 and put a videotaped apology on YouTube, pledging, “It won’t happen again.” He then appeared on David Letterman’s late-night television show, and that segment was also placed on YouTube.

The reality is that CEOs have real communications power, if they choose to use it. CEOs can draw on the media to enhance their global business and to spotlight their companies’ contributions to the markets they serve. It is not inevitable that they become losers in the media wars.

This article is adapted from William J. Holstein, Manage the Media: Don’t Let the Media Manage You (Harvard Business School Press, 2008).

Author Profiles:

William J. Holstein is a veteran business journalist and author based in New York. For more of his work, visit
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  1. Julie Creswell, “With Links to Board, Chief Saw His Pay Soar,” New York Times, May 24, 2006: An example of a devastatingly effective use of media to bring down a CEO.
  2. Dick Martin, Tough Calls: AT&T and the Hard Lessons Learned from the Telecom Wars (AMACOM, 2004): This book by the former head of public relations at AT&T is essential reading about managing through challenges.
  3. The Authentic Enterprise (PDF),” Arthur W. Page Society white paper, 2007: Senior PR officials offer insights into how corporate communications professionals are seeking to respond to the new business environment.
  4. Wake Up Wal-Mart Web site: Declaring itself “America’s Campaign to Change Wal-Mart,” this coalition of critics has used the Internet to great effect.
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