Wall Street Journal: Recent Controversies Spotlight Risks of Having CEO as Spokesman

Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and John Schnatter are founders of famous companies and the public faces of their franchises–Mr. Zuckerberg with Facebook Inc., Mr. Musk with Tesla Inc. and Mr. Schnatter with Papa John International Inc.

All three recently made comments that garnered criticism and thrust their companies into the spotlight, again drawing attention to the question of risks an organization faces when the person who runs the company or owns a controlling interest is also the chief spokesman.

Mr. Zuckerberg was forced to defend comments in which he said he wouldn’t automatically remove Facebook posts that claim the Holocaust didn’t happen. Mr. Musk issued an apology after he called a pedophile one of the men who helped rescue from a cave the boys from a Thailand soccer team.

Mr. Schnatter stepped down as chairman of Papa John’s after a tape surfaced of him using a racial slur. He since has said he won’t leave without a fight; the company’s board responded by approving a poison pill to prevent him from trying to wrest control of the company.

The problems that come from a brand spokesman’s comments are harder to deal with when that person also is the controlling stockholder or a person of power such as the chief executive or board chairman, said Tadd Schwartz, president of  crisis-communications firm Schwartz Media Strategies.

For example, he recalled how Subway IP Inc. quickly removed its well-known spokesman, Jared Fogle, after he pleaded guilty to child pornography and sexual misconduct charges. (Mr. Fogle sued earlier this year, claiming he was tricked into pleading guilty.)

“When the face of your company is also a shareholder and founder it is a much different scenario. When the brand is tied to the founder or the chairman,” said Mr. Schwartz. “You’re putting all of your eggs in one basket.”

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