Celebrity CEOs and Privacy Issues
Anna Kaufman and Yael Wolf
Introduction to Celebrity CEOs and Privacy Issues
Celebrity CEOs are executives at the largest and most well-known organizations in the U.S. These CEOs find themselves at the center of attention inside the corporations they work for and in the public eye as representatives of the corporation. Celebrity CEOs appear regularly in countless newspapers, magazines, and company press releases. The leadership role and measure of fame that high-profile CEOs find themselves in is unavoidable and often unstoppable. Celebrity CEOs are public figures and are therefore constantly in the spotlight.
Included in the list of Celebrity CEOs are the biggest names in the business world, such Warren Buffett, Kenneth Lay, Michael Eisner, Charles Schwab, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sumner Redstone, Michael Funk, John Thompson, Eli Broad, John Tyson, William Ford, and Lillian Vernon. The companies these executives work for make them attractive media targets.
This paper’s research about high-profile CEOs focused on answering the question: What private information is released to the public regarding Standard & Poor’s 1500 (S&P 1500) CEOs and how does it affect them and the companies they work for? The question was answered by using a databse to look through a large-sample archival database about S&P 1500 firms and the CEOs that work at them. The database included newspaper articles, magazine articles, and press releases dated from 1980 to 2006. This comprehensive database of media attention was used to find the most important and prevalent privacy issues facing celebrity CEOs.
Media Sources Archived in the Database
Where information comes from is a crucial factor in deciding its validity and trustworthiness as a source. The vast selection of reputable media sources and company released information available in the S&P 1500 database allowed for a dependable array of information. The newspapers and news magazines that were archived in the database are all national media sources that millions of Americans read on a daily basis.
The database we worked with provided thousands of articles from reputable newspapers and magazines. Along with these media outlets, companies’ public relations newswires and press releases are archived in the database but are not mentioned in the table due to the extensive list of companies mentioned. In Table 1 you can see a full list of these news sources.
Table 1: Media Sources Archived in Database
Washington Post USA Today
San Francisco Chronicle International Herald Tribune
Los Angeles Times Daily News
Chicago Tribune The Independent
New York Times State Journal Register
Boston Globe The Guardian
Wall Street Journal Denver Post
Rocky Mountain News Atlanta Journal
St. Louis Post Dispatch Houston Chronicle
Forbes Business Week
Maclean’s The Economist
Fortune Multinational Monitor
Celebrity CEOs are mentioned in the most reputable newspapers and magazines in the U.S. Their personal and business lives are scrutinized every day by avid readers and journalists who are interested in the successes and failures, trials and tribulations, and other sensitive information about them. Because the articles found in the database are from trustworthy press outlets, most people tend to believe what they read, hoping that all sides of a story have been covered and the article is free of any biases. This may be a downside for high-status CEOs, because once the media’s opinion is out and into the minds of the public, it is hard to change their view of the situation. On the other hand, it is important for celebrity CEOs to be featured in trustworthy news sources so they are able to build on the fame and status. Celebrity CEOs are expected to bring attention to the companies they work for and therefore, it is very important that whatever information is released ends up in a respectable newspaper or magazine. This spotlight on S&P 1500 firms is important for their continued success and prominence in the public eye.
An important consideration is the reason companies give out information about their CEOs? Do companies release information about CEOs to help build the company image? Do they release information to give the public a go-to face for the company? Is it all just a branding scheme? Do companies release sensitive information about CEOs to distract the public from something else going on inside the company? Do companies release information to media outlets under the idea that any publicity is good publicity? Do they just release information so they can get out a story before the media investigates it and makes the company look bad? Is honesty really the best policy? If a company releases information about their executives, should the private information still be considered protected information?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has created numerous federal laws to protect the public from disclosure of nonpublic personal information. Even with these laws, however, a lot of details in articles are disclosed anyway. Some of these laws include the Drug and Alcoholism Abuse Confidentiality Statutes (21 U.S.C. § 1175; 42 U.S.C. § 290dd-3) that prohibit the disclosure of information about people’s drug and alcohol abuse and their rehabilitation, except in cases of medical emergency or court order. The Health Research Data Statute (42 U.S.C. § 242m) prohibits the disclosure of health records that identify a person in any way. The Privacy Act (5 U.S.C. § 552a) prohibits the collection and disclosure of information about an individual’s use of First Amendment rights (Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act).
Some state laws have also been adopted to protect personal information. One such law is the Common Law remedies, which provides compensation for invasions of privacy, including defamation, disclosure of privacy facts, and breach of duty of confidentiality. These remedies provide for money damages and, in some cases, special or punitive damages (Privacy Laws). These laws, however, are not enacted in every state. For example, while Bank Record Statutes, which prohibit financial institutions from disclosing employee and customer financial records, are ratified under U.S. Federal Law, less than half of the U.S. states have ratified the law and therefore, protected citizens against this crime (Smith).
One important question to ask is how do these editorials about celebrity CEOs get around the laws and provide the public with private information about CEOs? Though it is impossible to know for sure, it is possible that these S&P 1500 companies compensate their CEOs in advance in order to be able to disclose their personal information to the media. This again brings up the issue of whether any press coverage is good coverage for companies. A possibility is that companies are willing to pay their CEOs extra money in exchange for extra exposure. This is probably not done explicitly although it is obvious that CEOs do, at least metaphorically, sign away their privacy rights for fame and fortune.
After analyzing the available data, a framework of celebrity CEO privacy disclosures was developed. This framework covers six categories of disclosure as seen in Table 2.
Table 2: Categories of Privacy Invasion
Charity contributions are made every day but some can either help or damage companies’ reputations. It is hard to keep large donations quiet.
Real estate and personal possessions
People with a lot of money will buy expensive things but whose business is it to know how much people spend on their personal possessions?
Religion has always been a sensitive issue which will often lead people to either hide their true beliefs, or sometimes publicize them to help their image. Whose business is it to know what faith others follow?
It is always more interesting to hear about how people mess up rather than how they succeeded. Thus, if a CEO has abused a substance in his past, it will be written about.
People’s personal lives are always interesting to the public no matter what form they are presented in. The negative aspects, however, are always more prominent.
Private family information
Most people in the public eye want to protect their family from being scrutinized for every move they make, but it is not possible to keep them hidden. Thus, information about the most interesting family members are usually revealed.
Donations, Contributions, and Philanthropy
The contributions to society made by Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Eli Broad, and Mel Karmazin reflect well on them and the S&P 1500 companies they run. Many of these CEOs have a “you have it, you share it” mentality to donating their hard-earned money (Goldberg).
Eli Broad, CEO of Sun America and well known philanthropist and art collector, donated $20 million to establish the Eli Broad College of Business and the Eli Broad Graduate School of Management at his alma mater. Broad donated 2.5 million frequent-flier miles to CalArts for student travel and also established the Eli Broad Family Foundation to share his art collection with the world (Haithman). These contributions helped to improve his image and that of the company he works for. Although it is important to donate money, is it necessary to write about it in editorials and showcase it to the world? Some people want their donations to society to be kept quiet, but with such large donations, it is hard to keep such a monumental philanthropic moment quiet for long.
For Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft, his billion dollar donations to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has improved his public image that had been previously damaged by the Justice Department investigation (Klinkenborg). Gates’ contributions to educational advancements improves his image and therefore, the image of his company. One issue with disclosing donation information in news sources is that philanthropy can be dehumanized and can become just a competition to see who gets on the media’s top philanthropist lists. Gates and many other philanthropists want to support education which was “their own key to success” and, by doing so, encourage people to “transition into the information age” (Klinkenborg). Microsoft and Gates see an important opportunity to show the world they are interested in educating the leaders and customers of tomorrow.
Although Mel Karmazin, CEO of CBS Radio, donated $1.7 million to the federal government, he had a reason behind the philanthropic contribution. Due to Howard Stern, “radio’s outrageous bad [boy],” and his repeated charges of indecency with the Federal Communications Commission, Karmazin was faced with charges against CBS Radio. In return for the record clearance of Infinity Broadcasting Co., a division of CBS Radio, Karmazin voluntarily contributed the small fortune (Gunther). Although this contribution helped the public, the reason behind it could be viewed as shady to some and the article may make Karmazin’s contribution reflect poorly on the company and damage the company’s, as well as his own reputation according to the public. This example shows that not all contributions are free of purpose and given from the goodness of one’s heart. These CEOs are business people and many will do anything they can to protect the companies they represent, as well as their fortunes.
In 2003, Berkshire Hathaway announced an end to its charitable giving program where Class A shareholders holding physical certificates could pick which charitable organization to donate to. Although a good idea, Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway’s CEO, controlled over half of the Class A shareholder votes for where contributions should be made. Millions of company dollars were donated each year to The Buffett Foundation due to invested interests by Buffett. This development was controversial, because The Buffett Foundation donates to population control, family planning, and helps to finance trials of the abortion pill RU-486 (Weekend Journal). This seemingly good deed turned bad due to the controversy of Buffett pushing his ideals and agenda onto other shareholders.
Real Estate and Personal Possessions
In a fame and fortune-obsessed world, the public is interested in public figures’ wealth and ownership. High-profile CEOs often live in luxurious homes and own extravagant things that many can only imagine.
Michael Funk, United Natural Food’s CEO, is building a solar-powered house out of wood, which will be cut in environmentally correct ways, in Nevada City, California. The article this was in, titled Health Food Seller Is Back to Health was totally unrelated to Funk’s private life and yet the mention of his home made its way into the article (Murphy).
Lew Frankfort, CEO of Coach Inc., lives in a 100-year-old house in a fashionable New Jersey suburb and has a weekend place in the Hamptons. In 2004, he purchased a $160,000 Aston Martin (Berner). This information may make Frankfort look bad, because it shows his outrageous wealth that he acquired from Coach, and it leaves the public wondering how well everyone else at Coach is doing. People may wonder if they and company employees are being taken advantage of while the CEO makes off with all the big money.
In 2000, Washington Post published an article describing home and possessions of Lillian Vernon, CEO of direct mail giant Lillian Vernon. Vernon’s home is complete with rabbit decorations, Christmas lights hanging from umbrellas, and fountains in her garden. She has glass walls and a huge skylight in her living room. This description of her home is contiguous with her company since it sells home and garden items. The article goes on to describe her “rust-colored linen suit and soft backless moccasins,” which is clearly an unnecessary issuance of private information (Woman Who Has Everthing).
John W. Snow, CEO of CSX Corporation, owns the Commonwealth Club of Richmond, which only in the past 20 years has allowed African American people to join the country club (Snow Discloses). This article makes Snow look like a racist man who only recently adopted American values of freedom and equality.
Eli Broad of SunAmerica paid $2.5 million for a Roy Lichtenstein painting at Sotheby’s on his American Express credit card. The upside to this for him was that he also got 2.5 million frequent-flier miles (Purdum)! Again, this information is private and not necessarily important information in building his image in the public eye.
Univision’s CEO, A. Perenchio owns a 243 foot long British custom-made yacht, called Eco that cost an estimated $45 million (James)! This is unnecessary information that is being released to the public by the Los Angeles Times. This information may make people uncomfortable about the amount of money this CEO is making and therefore, this media attention could negatively affect the company and the CEO.
Symantec’s CEO, John Thompson, has been in the media spotlight due to the company’s recent success in the AntiVirus software industry. Thompson owns a 1949 convertible Chrysler Woody and lives in a $10.2 million house in Silicon Valley. He also owns a private jet and a wedding ring from Tiffany’s. A USA Today article describes Thompson as seeming a “little embarrassed about his wealth,” even mentioning that his private jet was rented on occasion (Kessler). The image that Thompson attempts to uphold is one of the common American. He does not want to be looked at like a wealth and high-class individual. He likes looking humble, and these descriptions about his extravagant possessions disrupt that image.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal legislature from making laws that establish a state religion or prefer a certain religion, and prohibit free exercise of religion, among other things (U.S. Constitution). Although this law exists, it does not protect public figures from having their religious beliefs and backgrounds put on display for the world to see.
In adjacency with Dean Foods Co.’s principles of environmentalism and organic foods, Gregg Engles learned some Buddhist principles that he carried over to his management practices (Adamy). This Wall Street Journal article had a positive affect on the image of Engles and Dean Foods Co. since Engles was able to align company ideals with customer ideals.
A San Francisco Chronicle article revealed a previously hidden identity of Sumner Redstone, the CEO of Viacom. Redstone’s family is Jewish and his father changed the family last name in the 1940s to help Americanize the family. Unfortunately for Redstone, this name change has been a source of embarrassment (Sumner Redstone). The family’s name may have been changed to help mask their Jewish identity at the time when anti-Semitism was widespread and could have hindered the family’s success. Differing religions will always upset someone, and knowing this information may lead people to judge Redstone for his decisions.
For Lillian Vernon, her life was in danger due to her Jewish identity and as a result, she legally changed her name from Lilly Menashe to the more Americanized version she keeps today. Because Vernon decided to change her name, it was easier for her to merge her identity with the company’s identity (Woman Who Has Everthing). This is another example of a name change that was made to mask a past identity that is now coming to light again because of media interest in Vernon’s life and business.
There have been many biographical articles written about important people, celebrities, CEOs, and other public figures. However, information in these articles is generally taken half from interviews with the subject and half from research and interviews with their friends, families, and coworkers. Though it is not always clear that the subject of the article did not give some information willingly, a lot of the negative information is not commented on by the subject. This makes it seem as though it either did not come up in the interview or the subject chose not to comment on it.
In a biographical article about John Tyson, the CEO of Tyson Foods, written in Fortune magazine, Tyson told a story about his first summer working at Tyson Foods where he did not pay attention to the instructions given to him and spilled excrement from a chicken coop all over himself. Although unrelated, the journalist of the article took this opportunity to relate the story to Tyson’s troubles later in his life. The next part of the article talks about how “John descended...into a haze of alcohol and cocaine addiction that frayed his relationship with his father and pushed him to the periphery of the business.” The only introduction to this story was a mere “John's youthful follies lasted well into adulthood.” (Stein) It is not an important part of the editorial since most of the article spoke about how John turned the company around since his inception as CEO, but it is an interesting piece of information that would make him a more unlikely hero.
Another article, written in the New York Times, said, “While [Tyson] was addicted to drugs and alcohol, he was named to the board of Tyson Foods” as if it is not a big deal (Barboza). In this article, however, Tyson does go on to talk about how he now goes to schools and prisons and talks about his substance addiction and life troubles. This move may have been done to alleviate the severity of his past mistakes. If people are going to ask about it and write about it, he might as well make light of it. Community service always looks positive in the eyes of investors and so does mending past mistakes.
Another example is a 1992 article about King World Productions Inc., the nation's dominant seller of game, talk, and magazine shows, and why their stock is not as high as expected. The article says a potential cause is that one of the King brothers, Roger, the CEO, was arrested in 1987 for auto theft, cocaine possession, and robbery after a fight with a cab driver. This incident, which happened five years earlier, could not possibly be the cause of the falling stock; however, the fact is still stated – apparently for no reason. The article recognizes the lack of connection later after relating it to another arrest that happened a year before the article was written, where earnings rose 7% in the coming year (Fabrikant). As stated in the Privacy Laws section of this chapter, it is illegal to discuss people’s alcohol and drug abuse problems and arrests. However, the articles still mention these problems even when they are not pertinent to the article. Substance abuse instances can hurt the credibility of an executive and the company they work for.
Sex and infidelity have always been interesting issues to people whether the news is about a high-profile CEO, a celebrity, or a neighbor. It is not surprising when reputable media sources take personal information about sex scandals and expose them to the public. The media exposes sex scandals because the public is interested in what CEOs have done in their personal lives that may help or hurt them in their jobs. Unfortunately, sex scandals sell in the media and are therefore over exposed, leaving the victims’ private lives are completely destroyed after the stories are dissected. A sex scandal creates a situation where the media will then delve deep into any other issue that has ever occurred in the person’s life, thus making the situation even worse and making the media coverage last even longer. Although this is a federal criminal offense and therefore not a protected private act, the explosion of media attention for sex scandals can ruin careers and damage the reputation of a company.
An example of this is at the detriment of Sumner Redstone, CEO of Viacom, during his divorce battle. Even when Redstone explicitly asked for his divorce court papers to be sealed, at least six articles were written in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and the Boston Globe about the details of the mess. Three articles state that Sumner’s wife, Phyllis Redstone, is seeking $3 billion in the case and accusing her husband of adultery and cruelty. The other three articles say that she dropped the suit against her husband. One article even states that Redstone asked to seal the details, and in the next section talks about what his wife is suing him for (Graham).
In 2005, Robert Johnson, CEO of Newsday, was indicted for downloading child pornography onto his office computer and then trying to destroy it upon learning that his company was being investigated. The next day New York Times wrote an exposé revealing every fact of the case and what Johnson had done (Preston). It is obvious that Johnson would not want this information revealed to the public and he would never talk about these intimate details with the press or family, friends, and colleagues. There is an act, however, that protects media sources so that authors do not have to reveal where they receive the information (Privacy Laws). Although there are laws preventing legal and personal information from being leaked, whether it was legal to write this article is still up for debate.
A last example is the several articles written about Henry Nicholas, former CEO of Broadcom, a company that makes chips used in cable modems, set-top boxes, and other devices. For Nicholas’s 40th birthday, he ordered the MTV band Orgy to play at his party. After a miscommunication, a porn star showed up at the party – this was in the newspapers the next day and the news even reached his mother in a nearby state. As if this was not bad enough for Nicholas’ reputation as a credible and reliable executive leader, throughout the next few years, articles written about the company talking about technology mentioned the incident in completely unrelated ways (Holson). This unfortunate mistake has cost Nicholas, his family, and Broadcom their reliable reputations and the incident has severely tainted his public image.
Private Family Information
Although most CEOs are willing to give up vast amounts of privacy for a large paycheck and fame, when does the media go too far in freely providing sensitive family history information?
Family information has been written about Millard Drexler, Lew Frankfort, Mel Karmazin, David Moore, Jerry Fiddler, Gerald Levin, Jeffrey Swartz, Eli Broad, Edward Whitacre, Paul Fireman, David Overton, William Ford, Edgar Bronfman, and many other celebrity CEOs.
For David Moore, an article published about him referenced his ability to understand how hard it is to succeed. The article described Moore’s 20-year military career and paralleled that experience to Moore’s ability to succeed and understand the meaning of calculated risk. This article shows that Moore has a lot of experience dealing with risk and the experiences he had earlier in his life helped him be the successful businessman he is today. The article also described an event during his military career in which he kept his men alive despite hostile conditions in Vietnam. This shows Moore’s ability to take control of an ever deteriorating situation and save the day (Kroll).
This family information, although highlights the family and brings them into the spotlight, not everyone in these CEOs’ extended family may want to be showcased to the world. Some may live quiet lives that have been interrupted by a distant relative’s fame and fortune. Other stories describe harsh backgrounds and rags to riches stories that encourage news readers that follow CEO articles to believe that their own dreams may become reality.
Just like any other celebrity, celebrity CEOs live their lives in the public eye, and thus their whole lives are scrutinized by the rest of the world. However, unlike Hollywood celebrities, everything that happens in these people’s personal lives reflects not only their reputation, but also on that of their company. As in the previous example of Roger King, CEO of King World Productions Inc., his previous drug problem was one of the possible explanations for the falling stock of the company. No matter how preposterous the claim is that something that happened so long ago was the cause of a newly developed problem, it will always be a stain on his character. People will always look at him and wonder whether he will ever be capable of making crucial decisions. Many times the CEO is not only the one being talked about, but his or her family members are used as publicity pawns. For example, the mere mention of Peggy Broad and Eli Broad’s being married for 43 years is used to translate his commitment to marriage into the commitment he has for the company he works for (Haithman).
Not all publicity, however, is bad publicity, and certain information published about CEOs can be for the benefit of the company. A good example of this is the Gates foundation and the Eli Broad’s contributions to establish a business and graduate school. If the CEO is giving money to such good causes, more of his or her mistakes are forgiven. Also, sometimes what seem like unnecessary details about people’s possessions can be important facets to a company. For example, in the article describing Lillian Vernon’s house, one can gather that she is proud of her company and the things it sells. It also shows that Vernon not only endorses the products but also uses them. If the CEO of the company uses her own products, people will be more likely to buy the product
Weaknesses and Future Research
A weakness in the research is a lack of time to fully research more articles and delve deeper into the issues of privacy related matters of celebrity CEOs. If there was more time to examine these issues it would be good to research more articles and highlight more key privacy issues. Because the database is so large, it is very hard to go through every article and find every privacy issue relating to S&P 1500 CEOs in the time given to research and write this chapter. If time persisted, more research would lead to new revelations and more in-depth conclusions, making the argument stronger.
Another issue is that neither the time nor resources were available to truly understand the impact these privacy breaches have on S&P 1500 companies. It would require direct interviews with the companies and CEOs to really know whether the articles have had a positive or negative affect on the company, or any impact at all. Personal interviews with the newspapers and journals would also help immensely because one could gain understanding of the media’s point of view and figure out how they are getting around the legal issues of publishing private facts.
In order to understand these issues fully, it would also help to research more in-depth the privacy laws and court cases that have been brought against media sources regarding public figures’ privacy released to public. Knowing previous cases would either help or hurt our argument, but it would make the paper stronger and more reputable.
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