Just about every chief executive officer of any company (small, medium, or large) with whom I've worked has shared one basic belief: their mug belongs on the cover of Inc. magazine. I call this syndrome CoverMugitis.

These are people who have become CEOs because they're equal parts smart, tough, instinctive, savvy, gruff, intuitive, political, empathetic, and, most of all, egotistical. I'd argue that it's virtually impossible to become the CEO of a top organization without having one very healthy sense of one's worth. But, often times, a CEO begins to believe the accolades hurled his way by some combination of sycophants, hangers-on, and posse. And, that's when a CEO becomes dangerous (at least from an image-and-reputation standpoint).

Because, aside from hubris, the other trait I've found pervasive among most CEOs is a complete lack of understanding of the ways in which media relations works. CEOs make one of several assumptions about media relations:

1.)  That it's just like advertising. When the CEO decides she's ready to adorn the cover of a prestigious publication, the editor of said media property should be more than willing to beat a path to the chief executive's suite.

2.)  That media relations is all about relationships (which, in fact, it is). But, the CEO assumes that, because I happen to know and work with a few people at Inc. magazine, I can automatically convince her to run his mug on the upcoming issue of Inc. I can't. 

3.)  That reporters will actually believe the CEO's company is, in fact, ending world hunger or bringing about world peace when, in fact, they aren't doing either.

The last point is, in fact, where the rubber meets the road (or, in the case of most CEOs, the damn car rolls over and ends up in a ditch).

CEOs do not understand what constitutes news. While their widget may be the lowest cost one in the market or the fastest moving one or, maybe even the thinnest one ever conceived by the mind of man, it isn't necessarily cover-story worthy.

Cover story profiles are reserved for the very few CEOs who are leading a seminal change (think: Steve Jobs), re-positioning an old-line conglomerate (think: Jeff Immelt) or creating an entirely new category (think: Fred Smith). Until, and unless, your chief executive officer has demonstrated that she has created something entirely new, completely turned around a badly-damaged brand, or consistently produced or performed above-average year-in and year-out, or done something really eccentric, she simply doesn't belong on the cover of a top business publication.

I'll never forget the words of Manhattan PR legend Howard Rubenstein who, many years ago, was addressing an annual meeting of our industry’s trade group, the PRSA. Bemoaning the ever-increasing cases of CoverMugitis he was seeing, Rubenstein delighted the audience by telling us he'd finally found a remedy. "I reach into my desk drawer and pull out a water pistol," said Rubenstein. "Then, I hand it to the CEO and say, 'Here, go shoot someone. Then, we'll get your mug on the magazine cover.'"

Published on: Jan 17, 2012
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.