I cringed when Rupert Murdoch was pied in the face in Britain’s Parliament at the peak of his News of the World scandal. As frosting projectiled toward the media tycoon’s face, jaws dropped in both offended horror and journalistic hunger for a rich news story. The gears of a media landscape Murdoch helped construct began turning against him as reporters baked the event into a delicious tabloid commentary on the mogul’s precipitous fall from grace.
I cringed because I saw a leader’s struggles compounded by the judgmental gaze of media. Leaders often incorporate media training into their management arsenal. Politically savvy executives understand that the internet generation affixes a steady lens on people in positions of power. You may try to establish a contained audience of coalition partners and interested parties, but you must realize your statements and actions reach an alarmingly diverse audience.
Everyone receives the same HR orientation that warns you to seize your internet identity and protect your external image. However, leaders invariably find this lesson conflicting with the impulse to promote accomplishments and campaign your agenda to the past. A leader is a public personality so how does one hide from flying pastries when fortunes go south?
There is no clever maxim that frees the proactive leader from the 24 hour news cycle. Human resources logic suggests that a leader adopts a cautious paranoia that shields them from an antagonistic external world. This caution may work for Willy Wonka but leaders from Richard Nixon to Julian Assange have discovered the perils of mobilizing a paranoid agenda.
The truly proactive leader co-opts the media into its coalition as an active participant in mobilizing an agenda. Like all coalition partners, the media is not always your ally. Journalists and public observers can range from active supporters to weak supporters to committed antagonists. While factions of the public may applaud your agenda, others may actively disparage your efforts. Don’t view the media as a monolithic organism but rather as a diffuse network of critical observers.
You will inevitably confront your pie-in-the-sky moment and there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to duck out of the frosty public spotlight. Just pack some napkins and a sense of humor and you’ll receive your just deserts.