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Hype Versus Publicity

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Dear Monte:

Congratulations on yet another outstanding quarter at the helm of Amalgamated Smelting. Media interest is up. The stock is steady. We're prebooking fourth-quarter TV interviews at an unprecedented rate. And -- unlike so many other brand-name CEOs who are much in the media these days -- you've done absolutely nothing that might cause your reputation, or accomplishments, to be "restated."

In any case, yes, I got your messages -- e-mail, voice, fax, and BlackBerry -- regarding the recent cover story in the Economist declaring that Celebrity CEOs are "over." And I can understand your concern. But I have a slightly different point of view on this:

It's fantastic news.

Why? Because of the (patent pending) Biff Chatsworth 1st Law of Media Thermodynamics:

The moment any publication announces that anything is over -- from dirt farming to do-it-yourself brain surgery -- you can punch the sweep-timer button on your Breitling Navistar and start counting down the seconds until it's "back." Meaning that -- until Fortune starts running pictures of tractors and smokestacks on the cover again -- the downfall of a Bernie Ebbers (or Mike Ovitz, Jean-Marie Messier, Mickey Drexler, Gerry Levin, or Dennis Kozlowski) will always result in the media creation of a new Bernie Ebbers, Mike Ovitz, Jean-Marie Messier, Mickey Drexler, Gerry Levin, or Dennis Kozlowski. And it's my job to make sure you're the guy, next time.

To this end, there's one thing I want you to keep in mind over the next few months. It's a theme that seems to run through so many of these recent CEO downfalls: The difference between hype and publicity.

Hype is declaring that you're going to "change the paradigm" of the entertainment, retailing, or industrial world. Publicity is promoting the new store, product, or movie you have opening on Friday. Hype is the bombast that sets you up as a target. Publicity is a series of accomplishments that add up to a career.

Oxygen Media, Enron, Global Crossing, and Mike Ovitz understood hype; Home Depot and Wal-Mart understand publicity.

It's humility vs. hubris. It's letting somebody else point out that you've changed the world -- once you've actually done it. And it's something to remember, as we aim to make sure you're the guy on the cover when the Economist runs the story declaring that the celebrity CEO is back.

I'll be in touch --

The Biffster.

P.S. Three things: 1) You give me far too much credit for your decision not to reincorporate AmSmelt in Bermuda. I merely pointed out that it would probably zero out your chances of ever holding any public office in America. 2) The founder's twins, 56-year-old Carl and Otto, were upset by this decision -- they never seemed to grasp that you wouldn't actually be opening an office in Bermuda -- but they seemed to forget about the whole thing when I promised them tickets to the next Tyson fight. 3) In terms of the Harvard Business Review's request for an interview, both your wife and I think it's a swell idea, so long as the interview is conducted by a man. I trust you concur, yes?


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