Expert Commentary

Writing a compelling company or CEO profile

Effective strategies for writing a compelling profile of a company or business leader

A profile of a company or CEO is a staple of business journalism. Fortune magazine developed the concept back in the 1930s, and today virtually every business publication and section produces these stories. Why profiles? They’re a good way to give readers context, explaining whether a company is performing well or poorly, and whether the CEO’s strategy is working, and what is means for the firm.

Company profiles are based more on financial information; those of CEOs contain more quotes and personal information. But finance is the backbone of any business profile and the other details should just provide color that explains how the company or CEO operates.

While every company and CEO is different, here are three steps to reporting and writing a strong business profile:

1. Research

Find all available information about a company before you start interviewing people. Carol Loomis of Fortune recently stated that she read the past 50 years of annual reports for Bethleham Steel before she began talking to people about the company. I’m not suggesting that you read that much, but your research will make or break your interviews.

In addition, conducting in-depth research shows the people you interview that you’ve done your homework. If they see you know as much about the company as they do, they will likely tell you what you need to know, and might even recommend others to interview.

Knowing about a company’s history is important. It can tell you whether the company is returning to old strategies and philosophies, or if it’s embracing change. Look for books or other histories about the company. If nothing has been published, ask the company if there is an internal history.

Scan old press releases and stories as well. If the company has made projections about its business in the past, see if they panned out. Read industry publications too. They sometimes know more about a company than the mainstream media.

Look at the courthouse for lawsuits, and filings at regulatory agencies that may indicate how the company has been operated in the past. Once you’ve exhausted outside sources, begin looking at what the company has produced, such as its Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

Don’t hesitate to call people who previously worked at the company, such as former executives and board members. They may have valuable information too.

2. Interviews

When profiling a company’s CEO or president, get their resume or biography in advance, and find as many people as possible that know him or her before you go to the interview. Everybody from childhood friends to college roommates to bosses at their first jobs are fair game, and their stories help readers understand how the executive got to where they are today.

If your story is focused more on the company and a specific angle of its strategy, assess whether the CEO or president is the right person to interview. If you’re writing about a company’s international expansion, for example, it may be more useful to interview the vice president in charge of that effort.

If you have the time, it’s often valuable to talk to lower-level employees as well. Often, they will not be quoted, but they can provide the perspective of what’s going on in the trenches, and they can discuss how rank-and-file staff feel about the executive team and company strategy.

Interview people outside the company as well. Suppliers, business partners and competitors can sometimes give you a more honest portrait of a company than the company itself. Investors, analysts and business-school professors can provide a great perspective for your story.

I prefer to do all of my outside interviews before interviewing the top company executive. Often, you’re only going to get one shot at talking to them, so waiting to do that interview last means that you’re prepared to ask every possible question that has come up from your other interviews.

3. Writing

Writing a good business news profile is like writing a short story. There needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end.

One possibility is to begin with an anecdote or something that happened to the company or executive that helps illustrate what the rest of the story is going to be about. Another option is to start with a summary of what the lead is. If you use a summary lead, there needs to be a cause and effect high up in the story. Tell the reader the cause of the issue at the company — overhauling its restaurants or hiring a new CEO — and then tell them the effect it had on the company.

After you’ve set up the profile, the reader will want to know people’s opinions, particularly those who are experts, about the company or the CEO. After that, set the scene for the reader. Describe the CEO’s office or what he or she likes to do outside work. If the interview is over the phone, ask a PR person about the office.

Set the scene outside the corner office as well. If you can visit a factory or warehouse or a store, then do so. That will show readers how the company actually operates. You can also use upcoming events for the company, such as an annual meeting or meetings with analysts and investors, to help frame your story.

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