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How Microsoft should roll out the new CEO

Don't plan an instant news conference, expert advises; too much chance for a flub without lots of practice

January 13, 2014 01:44 PM ET

Computerworld - Don't expect Microsoft to put its new boss -- whoever it is -- in front of reporters right off the bat, a public relations expert said today.

When Microsoft announces the CEO, the company's work will be just beginning.

"The usual strategy is to wait for a while before exposing the CEO [to questions]," said Gene Grabowski, an executive vice president at Levick, a Washington, D.C. firm that specializes in crisis public relations and corporate reputation messaging.

Grabowski has advised firms on how to roll out a new CEO.

"No immediate news conference," Grabowski said when asked the most important element of a CEO's debut. "A flub by a CEO at an event like that, where the stakes are so high and the bottom line can be affected, is the last thing a company wants. There's just a greater latitude for mistakes if you rush things."

Instead, companies like to take their time before putting a new leader in front of the public, pick the right time and place for that appearance, and prepare him or her for weeks.

"You have to practice the tough questions and make sure they are really well prepared," said Grabowski. "One little mistake...."

Corporate CEO debuts are much different beasts than other seemingly-similar situations, such as the hiring of a college or professional team's head coach or even a politician who is, for instance, named as a running mate.

"Coaches are in the entertainment business," Grabowski argued, more akin to a film company trotting out the stars of its next blockbuster. "There, strategy is less important because the announcement is about the talent and the celebrity."

Some sports fans might dispute that, but new head coaches are often introduced to the public and the media almost immediately on the announcement of their hiring.

Even politicians roll out slower than CEOs. "Politics is somewhere in between [CEOs and entertainers]," said Grabowski. "The time is very compressed, much shorter than in business." But not immediate. "Someone says, 'We have three days to prepare,' and then they have to go public."

Ideally, Microsoft will choose an already-scheduled event to introduce its CEO, said Grabowski. "You have a strategy in mind, a roll-out plan, and pick the next logical event," he said, ticking off the steps.

Microsoft has several events on the calendar for early 2014, including its BUILD developers conference, which this year runs April 2-4 and where some Microsoft observers believe the company will talk about its next iteration of Windows. Another major conference on Microsoft's schedule is Mobile World Congress, Feb. 24-27, where it and other handset makers -- assuming the Nokia deal is wrapped by then -- will strut their new wares and technology.

While Microsoft has not specified a deadline for choosing its CEO, last month John Thompson, the board member who leads the CEO-search committee, said the selection would be announced early in 2014.

"Microsoft will announce its CEO with a great deal of fanfare" at that time, Grabowski predicted.

But push the new leader out on stage? Not if the company knows what's good for it.

covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at Twitter @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed Keizer RSS. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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