When Twitter permanently banned former President Donald Trump from its platform, company CFO Ned Segal broke the news in a CNBC interview about the micro-blogging platform’s first quarter earnings.
"If anybody [violates our anti-hate speech guidelines], we have to remove them from the service,” Segal said at the time. “Our policies don't allow people to come back.”
Stepping in as company spokesperson on matters transcending finance isn’t unusual for Segal, who left Intuit as a senior vice president in 2017 for the CFO role at Twitter.
In late July, shortly after Twitter disclosed its second quarter earnings, its CEO, Jack Dorsey, spoke expansively on a virtual Bitcoin conference panel about the potential of Bitcoin to create a better future because, as a decentralized currency, it empowers people by shifting the control of money away from institutions.
“My hope is that [Bitcoin] creates world peace,” Dorsey said. “We have all these monopolies ... and the individual doesn’t have power. The amount of cost and distraction that comes from our monetary system today is real and it takes away attention from the bigger problems.”
The comment left some people confused. The next morning, Segal stepped in as a clarifying voice.
“Jack Dorsey has these big thoughts, and I don't always follow what he's talking about,” an anchor for CNBC Squawk Box told Segal. “I was looking forward to talking to you, so maybe you can explain to me, in a way that I get, stuff on Bitcoin. How does this all play out? What's the big grand theory? And what does this really mean in the numbers?”
Segal then connected Dorsey’s remarks about Bitcoin, as a decentralized currency that empowers people, to Twitter, as a decentralized communications platform that empowers its users.
“If you step back and think about decentralization more broadly, we want tweets to be bits that can be organized in different ways across the internet,” he said. You see them on a million websites, not just on Twitter. We want to hire people all around the world, not just where our offices are. And we also want to help people find their customers on Twitter, and having a decentralized currency will help us do that across borders. That’s a little bit of what [Dorsey] was talking about.”
Unpacking the spokesperson CFO
Segal is far from the only CFO to give interviews, acting as a company spokesperson on matters that go beyond finance.
Analysts, whose job it is to dig deeply into a company’s numbers, tend to trust the CFOs, who have an intimate grasp. What’s more, CFOs’ disciplined ability to keep a company’s vision closely aligned with reality has increasingly made them the go-to person for publicly discussing company policies.
CFOs are “the obvious choice” to be a company spokesperson because they’re less prone to “gaffes or huge egos” than the CEO or other executives, Grant Johnson, chief marketing officer of SaaS company Emburse, told CFO Dive. CFOs are typically polished from investor or finance meetings, and are likely to provide measured responses naturally, he said.
Another benefit: by familiarizing analysts, reporters and the public with a key figure at the top of an organization, a company can ensure its reputation doesn’t rest entirely on the CEO, who, as an often-charismatic visionary, can sometimes pose liabilities.
“Apple did a great job with Steve Jobs, as did Salesforce with Marc Benioff, but there can be risks,” Johnson said. “Consider Uber’s Travis Kalanick or WeWork’s Adam Neumann. If they’re the face of the company and their personal brand becomes tarnished, it can drag the whole company down.”
Beyond that liability risk, it’s in companies’ interest to show they have a deep bench, something they can't do effectively if the CEO is the only public-facing executive. That’s especially important for a company that’s trying to attract investors or, eventually, a buyer.
“As a private company that is looking for an exit over the next few years … potential investors need to be confident in the entire leadership team,” said Johnson. “Whether it’s our CFO, chief product officer, or chief people officer, deploying different executives for interviews where they can demonstrate thought leadership is essential for demonstrating the overall caliber of our leadership team.”
Strategic partner in action
The rise of CFOs as strategic partners to CEOs is a big reason finance chiefs have increasingly stepped out as company spokespeople, Rich Sullivan, former vice president of FP&A at Twitter and current CFO of Acorns, told CFO Dive.
“Since I started my career over 20 years ago, the role of a CFO has evolved into being viewed as a strategic partner,” he said. “The CFO’s job is to help execute on and articulate financial strategy. In that capacity, it's an important part of the role nowadays to be able to communicate a company’s strategy alongside executing on it.”
That communication doesn’t just mean within the company. Today, it’s expected that the CFO will be able to speak to journalists and anchors about a company’s plans, growth expectations and challenges in a more quantitative and detailed way than, perhaps, the CEO may be able, Eric Fischgrund, CEO of New York-based FischTank PR, said.
For this reason, come quarterly earnings or other news events, many CFOs, rather than CEOs or communications leads, act as company spokespeople or figureheads, appearing in front of the camera to tell the right story, he added.
“If a seasoned reporter asks a CEO a financial question that he or she isn’t capable of answering, that could be a missed opportunity,” Fischgrund said. “If it happens in real time, it becomes a detriment.”
Investors and banks can find it difficult to determine the true value of a private company, he added. “Any CEO will give you the market opportunity and best-case potential, but a CFO is typically more guarded,” Fischgrund said. “Especially because that company may not be the only stop in their career.”
Not to be overlooked, CFOs often get promoted into the CEO seat, either at their company or another company, Charlyn Lusk, a managing director at Stanton Public Relations, said.
Discussing the company’s strategy and performance on earnings calls and taking questions from journalists, she pointed out, can be a training module for ultimately becoming a company’s number one.
The 'trustworthy executive'
When it comes down to it, the main reason a company would want their CFO to speak to the press is that they’re inherently trustworthy, according to Alex Jorgensen, who leads investor relations at PR firm Prosek Partners. “People trust a technical expert more, necessarily, than a spokesperson,” he said. “And the CFO is the ultimate technical expert.”
The CFO’s position as leader of the team that actually closes the books, and is so closely involved with the company’s finances, makes them an ideal, if underused, spokesperson, he added.
“It’s relatively common, particularly for Fortune 500 companies, to present their CFO for media opportunities,” he said. “I've seen that more and more over the last five years. CFOs are extremely open to these opportunities, which I think goes back to trust, and to wanting a direct line to your investors.”
Finance chiefs "may be a little drier than a dynamic CEO or wordsmith CMO, [but] they tend to share thoughts from a place of fact without the sometimes inherent selling that may take place in interviews,” Dick Grove, CEO and founder of Kansas City, Kan.-based PR firm INK Inc, said. “Journalists appreciate that, and I think readers who form opinions based on solid information do as well.”
The CFO's natural credibility
Analysts and consumers saw a good example of the trust CFOs command in 2015, when Chipotle Mexican Grill suffered from a string of contamination and e-coli outbreaks at stores across the U.S. that landed consumers in the hospital.
Steve Ells, its then-CEO, appeared on broadcast television apologize directly to consumers and detail the company’s renewed commitment to food safety.
As one expensive solution to the problem, he told Bloomberg, Chipotle would screen its produce for pathogens in small batches using high-resolution DNA-based tests. “Will everybody be able to afford it right away? No,” Ells said. “Will we help? We will. Is it going to work everywhere? Maybe not.”
Throughout the piece, Ells talked more abstractly about the chain’s insistence on doing better, while its longtime CFO, Jack Hartung, plugged in the numbers.
“Chipotle CFO Jack Hartung spoke more directly,” Bloomberg noted of its interview.
“We like the local program, we think it’s important, but with what’s just happened we have to make sure food safety is absolutely our highest priority,” Hartung told the outlet. “If it’s testing and safety versus taking a step backward on local, we would do that, and hope it would be temporary.”
Impact of democratized investing
There’s yet another reason CFOs are getting in front of the media more: the rise of consumer-facing investment platforms. With people increasingly managing their own equity trades, hearing directly from the CFO can give retail investors insight that can aid their decision-making.
“Throughout the pandemic, we saw a rise in retail investment through apps like Robinhood, and opportunities for the barrier between CFO and investor to be removed,” Jorgensen said. “Some were doing Q&A's on Reddit and Clubhouse.”
Everyday people really want and value that access to CFOs, he said.