by Bob Brady

Back around 1918, John D. Rockefeller, far and away the wealthiest person on the planet, started a new custom. At every public opportunity the founder of Standard Oil gave away dimes to adults and children alike. Just reached into a satchel he carried around with him expressly for that purpose and handed out the coins to strangers at will.

Everyone marveled at this generosity. Here’s Rockefeller, richer than Midas and Croesus combined, giving away money without so much as a second thought! All the newspapers wrote about his flamboyant altruism. Soon his public relations adviser, the pioneering Ivy Lee, established these spontaneous donations as a trademark. And to this day, nearly 100 years later, this legacy as an impromptu street-corner philanthropist lives on, the image of the stunt Rockefeller created – of the robber baron smiling as he parceled out pittances to urchins, forever restoring a high sheen to his reputation.

Now that’s what I call executive visibility.

Of course John D. Rockefeller hardly invented the memorable gimmick. History is strewn with stunts intended to demonstrate leadership. But that was then, those days are long gone, and this, make no mistake, is very much now. With media evolving at warp speed, dimes will no longer do the trick. The Pope is Tweeting. United States Senators are blogging. Even the Queen of England is getting into the act. Executive visibility – or exec viz, as we sometimes call it – is a whole new ballgame. Visibility is now more than just a term popular among meteorologists and airline pilots.

But how is it different now? And what should we know in order to advance the reputations of the clients we represent?

First, though, a quick confession. I’m a media strategist. As such, my emphasis in executive visibility is largely aimed at delivering results through earned media. In the course of my PR career, then, I’ve handled media relations for corporate CEOs, five-star generals, presidents of colleges, publishers of magazines, authors, entertainers, entrepreneurs, you name it.

I offer this background as a caveat of sorts for good reason. Exec visibility, at its most robust, is multi-faceted. A 360-degree executive visibility initiative, functioning at full capacity, entails much more than earned media. Our expertise as PR practitioners also goes into crafting messages, securing speaking engagements and awards, maintaining investor relations, running advertising campaigns, building third-party coalitions, securing memberships on boards, arranging Congressional testimony, monitoring issues and managing crises – all in the name of executive visibility. And that’s on a really slow day.

Until fairly recently, with rare exceptions, CEOs and most other organizational heads stayed behind a desk, unseen and unheard by the general public. That’s how society 50 years ago preferred its man in the gray flannel suit, its Organization Man. Leaders issued edicts from Mount Olympus, but remained humbly invisible. If they were quoted at all, it might be about a favorite charity or best golf score.

But today audiences insist otherwise. Stockholder scrutiny has intensified. The demand to deliver short-term profits has heightened. The media appetite for a face to go with an organization is all but ravenous. All the players in the game, public and private alike, have upped the ante on executive visibility.

The CEO is increasingly synonymous with the brand – a communicator-in-chief, even occasionally a celebrity, whether holding forth at The World Economic Forum or in op-ed pages and live chats.Few corporate leaders will ever win a prize for shyness.

In short, executive visibility is closer to an imperative than an option. Why this is so may have to do with how fast everything moves now, particularly information and news, thanks largely to the ever-accelerating phenomenon of social media. Only a few decades ago, it still took years for an executive to build a reputation. And, in equal measure, years to destroy one. But now a reputation can be built almost overnight, and destroyed faster than ever before.

No wonder CEOs are, in effect, always running for office. Ever on the lookout for votes, they check the number of comments posted on their latest LinkedIn column as if monitoring their own blood pressure.

So when it comes to producing earned media for executive visibility, what’s the new equation? Here, without further ado, are some of my most hard-earned lessons:

Question the central premise at stake. Exec viz should be more than just another item you’re obliged to tick off your checklist. For just as some CEOs are surely born for the spotlight, some will never be strong spokespeople for their brand. Get to know the strengths, personalities and passions of each executive in the C-suite. You might find better choices than the CEO. And be prepared to tell clients – especially those who might believe that getting a close-up with Maria Bartiromo just takes a corporate bio, some talking points and quickie media training – that executive visibility involves a rigorous process.

Find the right story to tell. You’re going to have to get forensic. And that means asking questions, lots of questions. Increasingly, exec viz calls for getting personal, too. Media demand to know the backstory, about the struggle and conflict, about how and why certain decisions came about, about what makes the CEO tick. So dig for specifics, for actions taken, for accomplishments recorded. Otherwise you’ll never get at the facts, much less anything approximating the truth. Otherwise you’ll be stuck trying to make do with boilerplate language how the pioneering, visionary, transformative CEO shifted paradigms.

Cultivate true collaboration. It helps a lot if the CEO is cooperative. It helps even more if the CEO is also collaborative. Seriously so. Hold a face-to-face briefing with said executive rather than a conference call or operate through intermediaries through whom, in a classic game of “telephone,” ideas articulated may be lost in translation. Put forth your recommendations, but sincerely seek feedback from all quarters, too. Only if you enlist support and create trust and establish a spirit of legitimate partnership – a composite of symbiosis and synergy – does your mission have a prayer of success.

Be more provocative. Please. I’m begging you. And if provocative is too high a standard to attain, at least be vaguely interesting. Spring a surprise of some kind. Envision the sort of headline guaranteed to lure clicks. Maybe your CEO has an insight or innovation no one has ever heard about before. It could happen. And, in fact, sometimes it does.

Let’s face it: the boss, in a sense, is the brand. That’s a given, only it’s now the case 100 times over. Today, Julius Caesar, as emperor of Rome, would have a Facebook page. Mahatma Gandhi would be putting out videos on YouTube of himself at TED Talks. Winston Churchill would be circulating photos of his V-sign for victory on Pinterest.

In the end, earned media conducted for executive visibility means leveraging a leader to serve as a symbol, an ambassador. It spells media coverage of someone who has come to represent – to personify – something larger than just a product or a service, whether a Fortune 500 company, an innovative concept, a righteous cause – or all of the above.

At its best, then, earned media for executive visibility has the opportunity to create value that extends well beyond mere media impressions or, for that matter, after-tax profits or good standing on Capitol Hill. It amplifies your key messages. It establishes an identity in that highly competitive ecosystem we call the global marketplace. Most important, it captures the holy grail. It builds a favorable reputation that just might last a long time.

Bob Brody is a media strategist and editorial specialist for Powell Tate, a division of Weber Shandwick. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. His previous contribution to The Holmes Report, “Media Relations: The Five New Rules of Engagement,” appeared in 2011.