Every year, FINN and Auxipress rank more than 50 CEOs of Belgian companies for media presence. We count the number of times that they appear in Belgian media, and we also perform a qualitative analysis to see what they talked about (“messaging”) and how they were talked about by media (“reputation”).

A curious thing: in some years, some CEOs can do no wrong. They have the Midas touch: everything they touch just turns to gold. Their name is dropped – invoked – in a range of articles from gardening to fashion, to business strategy and change management. For lack of a better term, we call it a “halo effect”.

Which prompted a question from a journalist who interviewed us about our 2014 list: “How does this halo effect work – why are some CEOs so popular with the media?” As well as the question: “Is that halo sustainable? Will it last?”

Interesting questions, and we thought we might find some answers in the story of that poster girl for halo effect in the media: Marissa Mayer.

“Halo, halo, shining bright”

In 2013, Nicholas Carlson (@nichcarlson) of Business Insider wrote an excellent biography about Marissa Mayer, marking (in more ways than one) the peak of the tech press’ obsession with Marissa Mayer.

Here’s how he describes her in the opening paragraphs of the article (emphasis mine):

“But Levinsohn (who didn’t get the CEO job, rw) was also at peace. If he had to lose out to someone, at least he lost out to an icon. There is no one else in the world like Marissa Mayer. Now 38 years old, she is a wife, a mother, an engineer, and the CEO of a 30-billion-dollar company. She is a woman in an industry dominated by men. In a world where corporations are expected to serve shareholders before anyone else, she is obsessed with putting the customer experience first.

Worth at least $300 million, she isn’t afraid to show off her wealth. Steve Jobs may have lived in a small, suburban home with an apple tree out front, but Marissa Mayer lives in the penthouse of San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel.” (Carlson, 2013)

And some more:

While rival CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Google wear flip-flops, hoodies, and T-shirts, Mayer wears Oscar de la Renta on the red carpet. (…) With her blonde hair, blue eyes, and glamorous style, she has Hollywood-actress good looks. Young, powerful, rich, and brilliant, Mayer is a role model for millions of women. (Carlson, 2013)

While these descriptions seem larger than life, they are actually careful, compared to how some of the media wrote about Marissa Mayer in 2013. She was everywhere, and from the coverage she appeared as some kind of superwoman. She was smart, rich, glamourous and powerful – and it was only a matter of time before she would turn around Yahoo! like it was 1999.

Marissa Mayer PR corporate communication media

The question is: were all these stories as uncritical as they seemed? Reading a few dozen of them again, with the benefit of hindsight, I think mostly they were not. Part of what we see is an optical illusion, caused by the way a media story is produced.

The process goes something like this:

Meet Marissa Mayer

Let’s say I’m a journalist researching a story on Mayer and I come up with a set of facts. It includes things like: she loves expensive clothes (it was hard to find a profile of Mayer that didn’t mention Oscar de la Renta), she’s always late for meetings, she is obsessed with details, she is rich and lives in a penthouse, she was Google employee number 20.

Some of these facts shed a negative light on the subject, some a positive, some neutral. Most of them will get some kind of “polarity” (positive or negative) in my story, because I want to keep my readers interested – is she actually that smart? is she cool? who is she really?

Next, I discuss my story with colleagues in the newsroom. I sense that they are largely admiring the way she is running Yahoo. “You can clearly feel the new direction they’re taking”.

I definitely don’t want to write a “on the one hand, on the other hand” story, because my editor wouldn’t appreciate that. I need a clear storyline. Plus, the stock is up 100 % since she took over. So I end uop going with a story along the lines of: “How Marissa Mayer is making Yahoo! cool again”.

Googling for the exact title “How Marissa Mayer is making Yahoo cool again” didn’t deliver a hit, but a close one in Quartz from May 19, 2013. Note the hedging: she is “attempting” to make Yahoo hip. The caption even uses a question mark: “Will these players heart Yahoo?”

So our  journalist ends up with a story with positive elements and negatives, and they feel they wrote a very balanced story. Here are some tidbits from the Carlson story from 2013 – the same story that I quoted at the beginning:

  • Mayer has many enemies within her industry. They say she is robotic, stuck up, and absurd in her obsession with detail. They say her obsession with the user experience masks a disdain for the money-making side of the technology industry.
  • “Her weakness was an unwillingness to delegate,” says Craig Silverstein, the Google engineer who hired Mayer years ago.
  • Mayer had approximately 25 people reporting directly to her during her first year at Yahoo. In theory, she was keeping up with each of them in a regularly scheduled weekly meeting. In practice, she would go weeks without talking to people (…)
  • Many of these people were meeting Mayer for the first time, and they expected to sit across from the woman they’d read about in so many fluffy profiles and had seen on TV or onstage at conferences — someone who was charismatic and warm; personal. That was not what they got.

Icon – robot.

Role model – stuck up.

Savior of Yahoo – can’t even talk to her direct reports.

Not fluffy, warm, personal.

The journalist feels he did a very balanced job on Mayer, and he’s probably right.

But a reader might not perceive it as balanced, because of what happens afterwards. A journalist has little or nothing to say about the headline, the lead paragraph, the artwork and the captions – and yet, they decide how a story feels. And because the overall tonality is positive, the entire production of the article will take a positive spin, whether I want it or not.

Here’s how the resulting story looks and feels to a reader:

Facts are not facts, they are illustrations of character

What the journalist will probably concede that he is “giving Marissa Mayer the benefit of the doubt”. This means that he is choosing to insert a positive or neutral tonality in his piece. This is definitely a choice by the journalist and/or his editor, and it also happens at the so called “fact” level.

Take the Tumblr acquisition. Is a 1 billion dollar acquisition of Tumblr a move of stunning genius, or the height of folly? The answer is that we can’t possibly know. Unfortunately, it’s not acceptable in much of the media today to admit that. What about Mayer’s move to abolish working from home? Again, it depends on who is talking.

What about a CEO who obsesses over every part of the design of a product? That’s very Steve Jobs, isn’t it? We know how successful he was, obsessing over the iPhone. It’s a trait Marissa Mayer shares with Jobs. But is it positive?

It can go either way, as Carlson himself shows. 

Let’s look at one specific story, as told by Carlson in 2013 in Business Insider and as told by that very same Nicholas Carlson in the New York Times in 2014 (when Mayer had fallen from grace). It tells the story about how Marissa Mayer jumped in at the eleventh hour to change the color patterns of Yahoo! Mail.

Here’s how it sounds in 2013 on Business Insider (abbreviated for clarity):

Mayer wanted to change the colors entirely — from blue and gray to purple and yellow. Seth’s body language shifted immediately. He looked deflated. (…) Mayer’s decision meant that some unlucky group of people were going to have to manually go and change the color in literally thousands of places — all while working under a deadline.

(…) But others have a different perspective. Their view is that Mayer refused to launch a product that she didn’t think was finished. A product’s color may seem superficial, but Mayer is obsessed with data that shows it is not. At Yahoo’s scale, if you can change a color a little bit and affect the performance by some factor of 0.01 percent, that translates into millions of dollars. In this view, (…) she set a marker for the new era of Yahoo.

Here’s the same story in 2014, told by the same journalist in the NY Times:

By early December, one day before Yahoo Mail was set to release, she convened a meeting (…) to talk about the product’s color. For months, the team had settled on blue and gray. (…) But now, Mayer explained, she wanted to change the colors to various shades of purple, which she believed better suited Yahoo’s brand.

Some around the table were encouraged that their C.E.O. refused to release a product that she was less than fully satisfied with. If changing a few pixels led to an increase of 0.01 percent more users, that could translate to millions of dollars in ad revenue. Others, however, were visibly furious. According to one senior executive, Sharma’s body language changed the moment Mayer issued her request. He looked deflated.

Carlson reversed the ending of this anecdote, and this is not a neutral operation. The ending of an anecdote is called ‘the moral of the story’ for a reason: it sets the tone for the story.

In 2013, Mayer was a CEO who was brave enough to make a difficult decision because she was brave – “she set a marker for the new era of Yahoo”. In 2014, she’s a capricious CEO who is micromanaging a senior executive in front of his subordinates.

That’s no coincidence, it’s spin.

To make it absolutely clear that in 2014, Marissa Mayer lost her halo, the title of Carlson’s New York Times article is: ‘What Happened When Marissa Mayer Tried to Be Steve Jobs’. If Mayer got a bit too much credit for in 2013, she is getting punished in 2014 – sometimes for the very same decisions.

Losing control of the narrative

What happened between 2013 and 2014 with Yahoo? The narrative around Yahoo shifted. In 2013, Marissa Mayer was the narrative at Yahoo. She embodied change, hope for a “moribund tech giant” (as Vogue called it).

That Yahoo had managed to attract someone cool to lead it was the story. Hence, every story had to underscore the coolness, greatness, vision and Steve Jobness of Marissa Mayer. Most of the press pack went with this trend.

There’s a joke by the famous economist Paul A. Samuelson:

“Economists are said to disagree too much but in ways that are too much alike: If eight sleep in the same bed, you can be sure that, like Eskimos, when they turn over, they’ll all turn over together.” (Source)

The same goes for journalists. It’s strange how they often behave like a herd. Maybe because their work becomes public record, they seem afraid to “call it wrong”.

As long as a narrative is the dominant narrative, it will be repeated ad nauseam. But at Yahoo, the narrative shifted quite dramatically in 2014. An analyst named Eric Jackson published a sum-of-parts-valuation for Yahoo, and found that it was probably worth nothing. Worse, it was worth negative 4 billion dollars, reports Carlson:

“Yahoo had a market value of $33 billion at the time, but that figure owed largely to its stake in Alibaba, the Chinese Internet conglomerate. According to Jackson’s valuation, Yahoo’s stake in Alibaba was worth roughly $37 billion. But if you subtracted that position, the entirety of Yahoo’s core business, all its web products and content sites, actually had a market valuation of negative $4 billion. A conquering company could theoretically buy Yahoo, sell off its Asian assets and absorb its business units free.”

Stories like this tend to shake journalists. They were happily writing about this glamorous woman in Oscar de la Renta dresses, who pushed the stock of Yahoo up 100 percent. Now it turns out this is all due to some eccentric Chinese entrepreneur – not Mayer. Time to revisit some of what we wrote earlier. And the Eskimos turn.

In his book ‘Six Degrees’ about networks, Duncan Watts talks about a concept that’s called a phase transition. He explains it as what happens when a magnet becomes magnetic – one moment it’s not, the next moment it is. There is no in-between state where a magnet is partly magnetic.

The same thing happens in media. One moment the spin on Mayer is positive, and most of the coverage is made to fit this positive spin. The next moment, the spin is negative. Mayer hasn’t changed – Yahoo probably hasn’t. But the spin has.

Glamorous or out of touch?

In 2013, Mayer is “stylish” in Vogue:

The day we had that conversation in her white, glossy, minimally appointed office in Sunnyvale, California, she was wearing a red Michael Kors dress with a gold belt and a brown Oscar de la Renta cardigan. (…) It might also strike you that the paradox of being both glamorous and a geek explains Mayer’s rapid progress in reviving what only a year ago looked like a moribund giant.

In 2014, she is “out of touch” with middle America when she wants to make Yahoo’s content glitzier:

While some at the company favored upgrading Yahoo’s content, there was a fear that Mayer, who preferred to read Town and Country and wear Oscar de la Renta couture, might undermine the company’s middle-American brand. (Carlson, 2014, NY Times)

Things begin to surface

Some things that were previously glossed over, now “begin to surface” (cue the Jaws soundtrack):

One of the Yahoo board’s hesitations upon hiring Mayer was her relative lack of experience as a manager. While running search at Google, she oversaw 250 people. Mayer liked to spin her demotion by saying that it left her in charge of more than 1,000 staff members, but a majority of them were contractors. Either way, in her haste to turn around Yahoo, this relative inexperience began to surface. (Carlson, 2014)

Other issues may be related to Mayer taking too much on and failing to delegate. Carlson writes that she has been directly involved in the design of mobile products, has to approve all programming decisions, and insists on reviewing every hire. All that, and she has a previously documented tendency to veer off-schedule. (Quartz, 2014)

“Quirks” are now causing strategic problems

That she is perpetually running late is now a strategic business problem:

This delinquency eventually became a problem outside Yahoo. At a major advertising event in the South of France, Mayer sat for an interview with Martin Sorrell, the C.E.O. of WPP, one of the world’s largest agencies. In front of a filled auditorium, Sorrell asked Mayer why she did not return his emails. Sheryl Sandberg, he said, always got back to him. Later, Mayer was scheduled for dinner with executives from the ad agency IPG. The 8:30 p.m. meal was inconvenient for the firm’s C.E.O., Michael Roth, but he shuffled his calendar so he could accommodate it. Mayer didn’t show up until 10.

The same mechanism that was causing every story to be positively spun a year earlier, is now causing every story to spin negatively. Check out this article on Quartz. In early profiles, Marissa Mayer is almost always portrayed on stage, looking larger than life. Now look at this picture. How small and lonely Mayer seems, how out of place – how scared even.

Notice the headline and the caption underneath the picture: 

How should corporate communication managers deal with halos and hype?

How should you deal with this when you’re the VP of Corporate Communication of Yahoo? Riding this wave of hype can generate a ton of positive coverage about your company, and might even radically lift your reputation (as it did in those first months of Mayer).

On the other hand, if your CEO is fairly new and hasn’t really impacted the fundamentals of the business yet, you might end up with a Mayer-like backlash a few months or years down the road.

Here’s a few things that I think make sense if you feel that your CEO is becoming a hype in the press.

1. Treat hype like a political campaign

Lutz Meyer, Angela Merkel’s spin doctor, explained a political campaign last year as an event that is driven by earned media (blogs, traditional media, social media, word of mouth…).

The advantage is that you can never generate as much buzz with advertising as you can through earned media. The disadvantage is that you’re never fully in control of the message.

2. Monitor the narrative closely

Politicians know that the narrative about them can shift in two ways: through big, external events, or through a series of small, nagging, persistent scratches and dents in the armor like the ones that are caused by attack ads or new polls. 

That’s why politicians lie awake about what former nannies, gardeners, lovers, cooks or household help might say about them to media. In the case of a CEO, these can be investors, analysts, former colleagues or CEOs at other companies like Martin Sorrell of WPP.

Marissa Mayer was probably unfortunate in that the narrative shift was so big, sudden and irresistible. Once an idea like: “Yahoo is worth less than the sum of its parts” surfaces, you should realise that you have to change your tone and your story. It’s no longer about the color of the mail app, or about Tumblr being cool. It’s about 34 billions of dollars of market cap – and your communication approach and even your style should reflect this.

3. Research and address weaknesses

Politicians have people digging up dirt on themselves in order to protect them against attacks. That’s a bit too radical for a CEO.

But corporate comm professionals should discuss the “but” stories with their bosses, like the one about how Mayer changed the colors in Yahoo mail at the last moment. A “but” in such an anecdote might turn one way, but it might also turn another, as we illustrated. Because of the way journalists work, the things you will be pilloried for later are already mentioned in those very first profiles. Like that other famous tech CEO said: “Only the paranoid survive.” 

4. Fight stereotypes – they will turn you into a caricature

Almost every story on Mayer mentions Oscar de la Renta. That’s a clear warning sign that you’re in danger of becoming a stereotype, or worse: a caricature.

In ‘The Good Wife’ (which has some excellent insights on perception and image), spin doctor Eli Gold is especially paranoid about information that might make his clients look ridiculous. In one episode, he says: “You will never survive the ridicule factor.” That might seem comical, but I think he’s on to something: it is extremely tough for a caricature to be taken seriously.

In the case of Mayer, she should have actively fought the “Oscar de la Renta” storyline, I think. 

5. Manage expectations

Rather than trying to live up to the narrative that was created about her, I think Mayer and her team should have tried to challenge these stories and set reasonable short term expectations.

Mayer became – allowed herself to become – the face of a turnaround before she had a chance to turn around the company. In a publicly listed company that attracts so much attention, that can only work for a few quarters before disappointment sets in. That disappointment will dominate the headlines – and it might end up costing you your job.

I look forward to discussing this with you in the comments. 

Image credit: Marissa Mayer at LeWeb by Magnus Hoij, Flickr (published under Creative Commons)

Any project in mind?