Technology's Chief Geeks Get Schooled in Media Savvy

Young CEOs and Entrepreneurs Turn to Presentation Pros in Effort to Polish Their Public Personas for Prime Time

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At no point does a media trainer want to see a client sweating in his hoodie when All Things Digital's Kara Swisher throws a curveball question about privacy -- especially if the client is the 20-something CEO of Facebook who had been down that road just months before with the famous "The age of privacy is over" comment.

Zuckerberg catches a curveball in an interview with Kara Swisher.
Zuckerberg catches a curveball in an interview with Kara Swisher.

That's now a lot more unlikely to happen with Mark Zuckerberg, who is looking decidedly less sweaty these days. The same is true for other tech startup founders who are more comfortable communicating through code than media. The reason is media training, either formal or self-taught.

Clarity Media Group CEO Bill McGowan, who has trained over 60 executives at Facebook including Mr. Zuckerberg, said in the past two years the tech industry has shot to 40% from 5% of his business. "There's a total acceptance and willingness in the industry to realize that this is just a professional development tool," he said.

Despite some bumps along the way, it's been a relatively smooth ride for Tumblr founder David Karp. In an interview with Ad Age , the 20-something CEO and engineer reflected on a News Corp. panel with unabashed tech blogger Robert Scoble. Having previously recognized that one of his shortcomings is witty, opinionated debate, he was better for sitting, smiling and not taking the bait when Mr. Scoble spoke unfavorably about Tumblr.

His response to Mr. Scoble shows learned restraint following less successful interviews and years of evaluating his own public interviews.

With up to two years before hitting a "full-on media circulation," said Mr. Karp, "I had a chance to say a few stupid things to bloggers rather than the Wall Street Journal. It was very forgiving."

Mr. Karp, whose media savvy has scored him a role in a Uniqlo campaign, hasn't worked with media trainers, but as a high-school dropout turned Silicon Valley honcho, he has had his fill of mentors who have helped him appear in public, cameras or not. For three-and-a-half years he honed his ability to speak publicly by listening to his friend, cartoonist Fred Seibert, in meetings with the likes of J.J. Abrams and Jeffrey Eisner.

A lot of it is a learning curve. Growing up with the internet, watching public execs such as Steve Jobs and learning from Mr. Zuckerberg's past mishaps has helped tech CEOs learn how to communicate better.

Mr. McGowan tries to evoke clients' tendency toward honesty during his sessions. He uses a grid or template to help them organize their own ideas and said the majority of engineers take thorough notes. In sessions with Mr. Zuckerberg, he tried to help the CEO stay true to his personality, he said, and it has worked.

"He's now able to convey through storytelling how his vision of the Facebook offering has evolved," said Mr. McGowan. "I try not to turn them into some 55-year-old consumer-packaged goods CEO that 's so overly messaged."

Brandee Barker, who recently left her post as director of PR at Facebook to start her own consultancy, said blips such as Mr. Zuckerberg's "age of privacy" comment have helped shape a media environment more accepting of the less-structured response or mishap.

"There have been some leaders -- for example, Mark Zuckerberg -- who have given the people who have followed them permission not to be so structured and messaged in the media," she said. "We don't try to make them someone different," she added. "There's an authenticity that comes across, and if it's awkward and they say the wrong thing, that 's OK."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Brandee Barker as VP-PR at Facebook. She was director of PR.

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