Directing a CEO – Why you want to work with a Director

March 11th, 2015 Vern Oakley

A major PR firm contacts us with an urgent request for help with a client communication issue. Their client, a Fortune 500 company, is faced with a crisis in investor relations. They need to respond candidly, honestly and quickly to a serious issue that has the potential to derail their carefully prepared M&A strategy – and that might even threaten their core business.

At Tribe, we like nothing better than kindling the fires of creativity in order to tell stories that connect with our audiences. But putting out fires is also one of our specialties. In a quick round of meetings over a compressed 24-hour period, the team determines that only a direct message from the company’s CEO will adequately address the concerns raised. The PR firm agrees and so does their client – and that’s when things get complicated.

As we prep the interview with their hard-to-schedule, celebrity CEO, the PR firm suggests they conduct the actual interview themselves. The only thing they expect Tribe to do is to show up with the right crew and camera gear – and, of course, to make everything look terrific. So (and not for the first time) I’m suddenly faced with a dilemma: Should I follow the conventional wisdom that “the client is always right,” and agree to a plan that would essentially turn a highly stressful, high stakes project into a much easier job for Tribe? Or should I listen to the warning bells going off in my head?

Those warning bells always win. Polite inquiries confirm a key issue: no one on the PR firm’s team has directing experience. No one has ever sat across from an executive in mid-crisis and helped them shape their message, convey the right effect, and connect with their audience. When we discuss this with the firm, they explain that they prefer to do the interview because they’ve spent months working on the messaging for the deal.

I tell them I completely understand, but that now it’s time to turn that carefully crafted message into something that will connect with an audience. Their message needs to be made more human and relatable – and it also needs to be distilled down into something that can be grasped quickly. Months of work had led to a dense PowerPoint messaging deck that covered every base, crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i.’ Now they’re facing a possibly skeptical audience searching for answers, rather than ticking off boxes on a communications chart. That audience wants to hear a clear, honest, and relatable story. That is the job the firm has hired Tribe to do – and I strongly suggest that they let us conduct the interview.

When it comes to creating filmed messages from CEOs and other high level executives, what exactly is the job? Well, of course it’s making them look good. We do, indeed, need to “bring the right camera” – and the right crew, and lighting, and hair and makeup, and whatever else is needed. We need to select the right location, and the right filming style. We need to handle all the touchy logistics associated with interfacing with an eight-figure superstar. But it’s much more than that. And quite honestly, we’ve learned from experience that it’s the other things which are most important.

Directing a top level executive is about building trust – and doing it almost instantly in whatever 20 minute (or shorter!) window you may have been given in their schedule. It’s about paying critical attention to body language, hand gestures, voice intonation – and understanding what these subtle cues may be conveying, either intentionally or unintentionally. It’s about listening to language, gauging pacing, and assessing honesty. It’s about acting as the “first audience” for the executive’s message, and being in touch with your own response, so that you can anticipate what a larger audience’s is likely to be. It’s about helping guide someone through a crisis point, a challenge, or an opportunity. And it’s about finding a politically acceptable way of saying “do it again” to a busy CEO who’s already late for their next meeting.

A filmmaker friend says, “With all the activity on a typical film set – all the technical gear, the noise, the sprawl, the people running around setting up lights, the logistical bluster – you can sometimes forget that the most important activity is often incredibly intimate. It’s happening in a small space between maybe only two people, two actors, or the director and an actor. And it’s our job to hold that space in the middle of the chaos, to allow for that connection to happen.”

Corporate directing is no different. In this particular case, we hold that space. Tribe conducts the interview, it’s a success, and the company’s deal goes forward – at least until the next fire!