Strategies & Tactics

Act Like a Communicator, Think Like a CEO

May 1, 2019

[h. armstrong roberts]
[h. armstrong roberts]

When you report directly to a CEO during a crisis, you see him or her up-close and can learn from the good and the bad.

The crucible of crisis doesn’t develop leadership, but reveals it. Strengths and flaws are both magnified. Without some sort of philosophical underpinning, a CEO faces hurdles to success — and as a communicator you will struggle to tell your company’s story well. However, when you see a clear philosophy in your chief executive, you will understand how to act like a communicator and think like a CEO.

So, what does an efficient CEO’s mindset look like, and how can you replicate it?

In my experience of working with chief executives from across the globe (some of whom were excellent, while others needed to improve in certain areas), I’ve seen three philosophies of good crisis CEOs that are relevant to us as communicators. The first is taking a mountaintop view, the second is having laser focus, and third is humanizing the situation.

Mountaintop view

Imagine looking across a mountain range from the top. You see near peaks, far peaks and the valleys and saddles in between. You might focus on the nearest peak — where you’re headed next — but a good CEO’s view will be on the farthest peak, the one that represents your eventual destination.

As communicators, we must learn that the task in front of us at any given moment is only part of the journey. We have valleys and peaks to traverse along the way, but they’re not our ultimate destinations. Great CEOs always maintain a mountaintop view toward the eventual summit, even as they move through intervening gullies and peaks.

As communicators, we should think about how each task helps us reach the eventual destination. Taking this long-term view can be difficult when we’re focused on the details of an event or the specifics of a press release. Those jobs are important and have to be done right, but we also need to make sure we don’t get lost in the valleys where those tactical activities might lead us. Like a great crisis CEO would, we should keep the overall destination in mind at all times.

Laser focus

Lasers produce clear points of light. I was reminded of this while working with a group of Japanese companies. As we presented the communications aspects of a litigation strategy, one of the CEOs pulled me aside and asked, “What is the most important thing we should focus on — and what do we need to do next?” He wanted laser focus on the communications activity that was essential to their success.

CEOs process huge amounts of information from many different sources. As communicators, we are similarly deluged with information from multiple sources: news media, social media, stakeholders, consultants, employees, etc. We therefore need to maintain coherent focus on what is important and relevant, and what helps us succeed. Everything else should be ignored or put aside in the moment.

Likewise, we must only tell leaders what they have to know to make a decision, or give them one action to take next. That way, we don’t add to their workloads and they can focus on what’s required for communications success.

Humanizing approach

Good CEOs think about people first. They consider those who have been affected by a crisis, tell the story to audiences that matter most and think in human terms, not just facts or numbers. A humanizing philosophy lets CEOs and communicators empathize with those affected, understand their perspectives and act ethically.
But humanizing doesn’t mean just thinking about people.

You might find yourself caught in a situation where, on one hand, you might be considering an apology, whereas the alternative is a full-throated defense of what happened. Favoring an apology to those involved may seem more human but there are human aspects on both sides. You need to understand the nuance and humanity of each option.

Humanizing means being able to understand what things mean to people as individuals, and to understand where they are coming from. It could be that a “human” apology isn’t the best thing for those affected, but without understanding their needs, you won’t know that.

Great communicators have the ability to see things from other perspectives to help decide which approach to take. Great CEOs also understand this, so ensure that, as you humanize things, you remember that it’s about addressing people’s needs, not just thinking “people first.”

Maintaining a mountaintop view, laser focus and humanizing approaching will help you think like a CEO while acting as a communicator. But remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all model for chief executives. Great CEOs and leaders can differ greatly. Harvard Business Review and the CEO Genome Project are always looking for traits that make great CEOs, which you might want to study.

However, as a start, I recommend that you concentrate on the three traits outlined here as the best ways to serve CEOs and develop your own skills as a crisis communicator.


Learn More

On April 16, Bill Coletti presented "Act Like a Communicator, Think Like a CEO." This free, on-demand webinar is now available for PRSA members at prsa.org/PD.

Bill Coletti

Bill Coletti is a reputation and crisis communications expert, a keynote speaker, and best-selling author of “Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management.” Coletti is the CEO of Kith, a reputation management and crisis-consulting firm based in Austin, Texas. Contact him at bcoletti@kith.co.

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