By Steve Michelson
Communications by CEOs and other executive leaders are more important than ever.
It is crucial that businesses and non-profits recognise the value and actively manage these activities for increased reputation impact.
Executive-level communications should be viewed as a key capability in support of the work any organisation does in its sector for several key reasons: (i) the rapid shift in the media landscape; (ii) the high persuasion potential; (iii) the need to plan for the inevitable; (iv) the critical internal component; and (v) changing public expectations.
The lower entry barriers to publishing platforms means it is more important than ever for executives to be mindful of their communications or risk falling behind. Easy access to social and digital media and the ever-increasing appetite of traditional media for low-cost content (in an age of falling revenues) means executive communications activities have a higher pay off. Naturally, this is a double-edged sword because it means you risk falling behind competitors if you choose not to engage.
And yes, inaction is a choice.
Second, the CEO is often the most powerful asset in an organisation’s armoury of persuasion. They speak with the most authority. Their high position affords them credibility. Journalists afford them deference. They can cut through the proliferation of media channels. They are often the best credentialed employee – and therefore the most credible spokesperson — in the organisation. Whatever credentials persuaded the company to hire the CEO will also help persuade target audiences.
Third, executive-level communications are inevitable. Simply put, the CEO is the face of the organisation no matter what. In crisis or calm waters they will be expected to speak on the organisation’s behalf. So, you had best plan accordingly.
A prime example of the consequences of failing to plan is former Ardent Leisure CEO Deborah Thomas. She was thrust into the public spotlight when disaster struck the Gold Coast theme park owned by subsidiary company Dreamworld. Four customers died in October 2016 when a ride malfunctioned. Ardent Leisure had clearly not prepared for how their CEO would handle a crisis situation. It decided to proceed with its shareholder meeting just two days after the tragedy. Naturally, Ms Thomas was asked to comment and appeared ill prepared. It didn’t help that she was voted a large bonus at the meeting.
The company also failed to get ahead of the story by ensuring Ms Thomas phoned victim’s families – a oversight raked over by journalists. She announced her resignation as CEO six months after the tragedy. The lesson? Your CEO cannot avoid the spotlight in a crisis. So be prepared.
Fourth, the importance of internal CEO communications should never be discounted. In fact, it is a key reason for the overall importance of a corporate leader engaging with target audiences. Building the CEO’s external profile will have the follow-on benefit of building an even greater sense of organisational purpose and pride.
Finally, from a social impact perspective (the specialisation of my firm) executive communications are critical because of the consumer and public expectation in the modern age for chief executives to speak out on a range of social issues. Climate change. The march of women through the institutions of society. Modern slavery. Automation. Declining trust in public institutions. There appears to be a widespread expectation for executives to be vocal on a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues.
For these reasons, we design and deliver communications strategies for senior leaders in all sectors and industries to build and protect reputations, monitor and engage with audiences, understand media systems and maximise their social impact.
While we go into much greater detail with our clients tailored to their needs and circumstances, there are some general parameters that remain constant.
CEOs should always be proactive and considered when choosing the issues and forums where they engage.
A consequence of the rise of digital media is that external communications must be delivered in shorter timeframes than ever before. The CEO must be ready to communicate quickly and effectively to his audiences in response to emerging issues.
In addition to rapid responsiveness, the CEO should also be proactive and innovative. He or she should lead rather than follow and seek out new ways of telling the organisation’s story.
Also, communications should always be strategic, and the contact a CEO has with key audiences is no exception. In short, strategic communications aims to influence behaviour. Its purpose is to create, strengthen or preserve support and neutralise opposition — not merely inform target audiences but convince them. A CEO, properly advised, will ensure all language, messaging, themes, narratives, imagery and statistics are carefully chosen to maximise persuasive potential.
Dangers and risks
By the very nature of its high profile and high stakes, CEO communications require careful management to plan and mitigate for risks.
A proactive, high profile CEO with strong contact with target audiences will attract scrutiny. The bigger the executive’s profile, the more inquisitive journalists, annoyed stakeholders, angry shareholders and self-interested politicians.
A prime example is former CPA chief executive Alex Malley whose media blitz as “The Naked CEO” — including a book, TV talk show and front page newspaper ads — drew the attention of Australian Financial Review columnist Joe Aston. A relentless stream of columns followed that ended in Mr Malley’s resignation over accusations of maladministration at CPA.
The departure or absence of a CEO also poses a risk. The bigger a corporate leader’s profile becomes, the greater the challenge when he or she leaves the organisation — and the bigger the hole if they take extended leave.
Crucially, the CEO must prepare. Time is a limited resource for any corporate leader and so the temptation is to ‘wing it’ — at their peril. Live TV and radio interviews without proper preparation can quickly go awry and erode a CEO and a company’s credibility. A rushed selection of an issue to be vocal on can equally land a CEO in trouble with key stakeholders.
These risks can be effectively mitigated against without preventing the organisation from leveraging their CEO as a powerful tool for public and internal persuasion.
Clients should first audit their leader’s communications to date to identify achievements and areas for improvement.
Communications function should be centralised to ensure consistency and speed.
Clients should then refine their overall communications objectives. Here, it’s important to be clear that the CEO’s communications activity, as a key component of the organisation’s broader communications, is not an end in itself but should serve and hence be aligned with organisational objectives. Thus, we emphasise that these CEO communications objectives must be properly aligned.
Then it is important for the CEO to sit down with his or her executive team and carefully choose the issues, messaging and distribution channels they will focus on. Key considerations here are intended objectives, the CEO’s strengths and weaknesses, and the degree of personal authenticity that the CEO can bring to any particular issue.
Target audiences should be carefully selected to maximise reach, ensure consistency of message and avoid pitfalls.
Key stakeholders should be engaged with once a strategy is agreed so they are not caught off guard.
Finally, given the ever-changing nature of communications, it is important to regularly review the CEO’s communications efforts to ensure they are continuing to meet the organisation’s objectives.