The Public Relations Strategist

In New Era, Corporate Leaders Need Your Communications Guidance

October 26, 2017

[bim/getty images]
[bim/getty images]

It’s not a complaint one often hears about CEOs, but when it comes to their role in corporate communications, it’s true: Many CEOs aren’t sure what they want.

I know this now. And it’s useful knowledge to have.

The lack of certainty among CEOs regarding communication is something I learned about by spending two straight days (and two serious nights) with some leading executive-communication thinkers, practitioners and researchers at the CEO Communication Summit, an event convened by the Professional Speechwriters Association this past summer in Montreal. What I heard was that many Fortune 500 and prominent nonprofit CEOs dither and differ dramatically on questions you’d think would be more or less settled at this seemingly late stage in the evolution of corporate communication.

The meeting was off the record, but the survey commissioned in conjunction with it was not. What don’t CEOs know about communication and where they fit into it? A lot, judging by the conversations, which concurred with the results of “The CEO Communications Audit,” a report prepared for the Luc Beauregard Centre of Excellence in Communications Research at Concordia University in Montreal. Among its findings is that CEOs disagree on whether they should use social media personally, or whether it’s worth the risk for a company to engage in social media at all.

“Social media is the greatest opportunity and the greatest equalizer,” said one of the 33 CEOs interviewed for the report. Another CEO, expressing mixed feelings, remarked, “In the past year, it’s been an upside, but I’m always afraid something can happen.”

In some cases, CEOs are trying to keep up with trends in communication and technology. “I’m on social media because no one wants to be the ‘old dog that can’t learn new tricks,’” admitted one. Another CEO said he’s not on social media at all, because “the most important element is the brand, not me.”

According to the study and the conversations in our meeting, many CEOs don’t know where to focus their communication energies. Though CEOs often say communication is a hugely important part of their job — two chief executives told researchers it accounts for 90 percent of what they do — “most business leaders we spoke with were reluctant to say that any specific aspect of corporate communications was less important,” researchers said. (When pressed, CEOs decided 60/40 in favor of internal communication over external communication.)

Chief executives also seem unsure about whether to take stands on public policy issues. “I avoid talking about policy in an aggressive way,” said one CEO. Many felt they should advocate on issues, but only in ways that aid their brand.

Others “were open to having their companies advocate on issues that were not tied to their business interests.” Some CEOs felt they owed it to society to participate in the public conversation. As one put it, “We are losing social cohesion in part because business people are absent from the debate.”

It appears that CEOs don’t agree on how hard they should lean on their communication advisers. Some chief executives see themselves as the top communicator in their organization (and presumably relegate other communicators to supporting roles). Other leaders feel an organization’s top communicator should report to the chief strategy officer. Many CEOs want the chief communication officer to report directly to them.

A new stage in CEO communication

At the summit, Texas Capital Bank CEO Keith Cargill was willing to share that he wants his communications people to remind him of his organization’s long-term goals. He has plenty of people in his ear stressing the importance of short-term financial targets, he said. Cargill added that his fiduciary duty to maximize profits requires long-term vision, for which cultural health — made possible by thoughtful communication — is vital.

Cargill said CEOs are often placed in a communication vacuum. Employees want to protect them from issues or time-consuming conversations they believe the chief executive shouldn’t have to worry about or assume they already know. Cargill said he thinks CEOs would benefit from communicators developing relationships with frontline people all over the organization, so they might synthesize those perspectives and tell the CEO what he or she needs to know, but probably doesn’t.

Researchers said many of the CEOs they interviewed wanted to see the final report when it was published, so they could learn what their peers think about communication — perhaps to better understand it themselves.

The report reveals that CEOs need strong guidance from their communicators, who are developing their own sense of strategic executive communication in the social media, real-time, post-truth era. Maybe the first step is to understand the source of the current indecision CEOs feel about communications and social media by acknowledging that we might not be in a late stage of CEO communication after all, but rather in the disorienting first phase of a profoundly new stage.

“My father was a CEO back in the ’70s,” recalled Dain Dunston, a communication adviser to Cargill, in a conference-closing session that he gave us permission to share. “Before I came here, I called him and said, ‘Hey, Dad, tell me about your speeches. How did you get them done?’ He said he wrote his own — mostly just bullet points on a card. Didn’t use a speechwriter. ‘So, what were the speeches about?’ He said, ‘Mainly, what are we going to do about third-quarter inventories of aluminum billets, and stuff like that. Deadly boring.’ He said it would have been a lot more fun doing what I do.

“What’s different today is that CEOs can’t just live in the business world anymore, like my dad could,” Dunston continued. “They have to live in the real world. They have to be responsible for their footprint in the real world. The first part of that responsibility requires understanding that you have a footprint that extends far beyond your balance sheet. It’s economic. It’s societal. It’s historic.”

And, communication professionals, it’s largely up to you.  


The CEO and the Brand

“The CEO Communications Audit,” a report prepared for the Luc Beauregard Centre of Excellence in Communications Research at Concordia University in Montreal, explored many facets of the CEO’s role, including the relationship between the chief executive and the brand.

According to the report, the relative importance of the CEO in this respect varies based on the audience, an organization’s circumstances and the perspective of the individual CEO.

Most CEOs understand they can impact the corporate brand, but not all believe it is their job to try to shape or alter the brand or be “high-profile.” The study shows that:

  • Some CEOs believe that it is not their job to alter the corporate brand, although they know there is a risk they can impact the brand if strategic initiatives fail.
  • Many business leaders discussed how the brand is much bigger than the CEO and should remain as such.
  • Some CEOs felt that they had little influence on how the brand might be perceived by certain audiences, e.g., consumers who deal with employees, frontline touch points.
David Murray

David Murray is executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. He is also editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, a monthly magazine that collects the world’s best speeches.

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