The Public Relations Strategist

A 5-Year Leadership Communication Crisis: Bringing Human Relations Back Into Public Relations

October 13, 2016

[jovan vitanowski]
[jovan vitanowski]

What’s in a word? they ask. Well, if that word is leadership, then I’m guessing that few of you would contest the idea that this single 10-letter term has become one of the most critical words of our age.

That was certainly our instinct when, five years ago, we set out to answer two simple questions through our annual global Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor (KLCM). Those questions were: “What does the world think of its leaders?” and “What can those leaders and the organizations they steer do to restore confidence?” These are issues that lie at the heart of what we do to help organizations and those at their helm establish and maintain a leadership advantage.

Back in 2011, we could not have imagined that our exploration of this critical area could be quite so universally relevant as it was when we unveiled the fifth edition of KLCM in June, less than a week after the U.K.’s Brexit vote sent shockwaves around the world. Nor could we have foreseen that globally the picture of leadership would be quite so alarming. Indeed, conversations with more than 25,000 members of the public over five years and across five continents have found that no more than one in four respondents in any year have said leaders were leading effectively.

Over the same period, the number who said they believed there would be an improvement in leadership in the year ahead has never topped 18 percent, with just 13 percent saying they felt leaders were taking appropriate responsibility. Hardly a ringing endorsement!

Brexit and the ongoing debates over the future of Europe are just one example of the extent in which high-quality, inclusive leadership is now more hotly debated (and sorely needed) than ever before, be it in Brazil, Venezuela, South Africa or Malaysia. And of course, unless you’ve been living in a distant cave this year, you’ll know that questions about the leadership style, tone and substance of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be the defining feature of the weeks leading up to November’s U.S. presidential election.

The enduring global leadership crisis

If leadership is so pivotal to business, politics and society, and if our annual leadership health checks are repeatedly coming back with less than glowing results, what can leaders — and we as professional communicators — do to help restore battered confidence?

The answer, I would argue, can be found in remembering a fundamental truth: Public relations ultimately comes down to human relations among people. As advisers, failing to act on that insight will result in us inadvertently helping to make the prevailing leadership crisis worse. Certainly, increasingly mobile-centric social media and other communications technology continue to rewrite the paid, earned, shared and owned (PESO) rules for our profession. But this evergreen human truth is one that we forget or simply ignore at our peril.

Pretty much any definition of public relations will include mention of relationships. Relationships are, of course, among human beings. And it is those human beings — whatever technology may bring — who ultimately steer organizations, lead people and drive change, not just collectively, but also individually.

The real-world impact

Make no mistake: No one ever said leadership would be easy. And leaders are struggling with the “new normal,” which forms the backdrop for everyone who seeks to lead and create followers: political and economic uncertainty, the worrying rise of nationalism, the ever-present threat of terrorism, a real backlash against mainstream political and business “elites,” and, of course, 24/7 media and social scrutiny.

Booz & Co. has found that the average tenure of a global chief executive among the world’s top 2,500 public companies has fallen from 8.1 years to 6.3 years in the past decade, while RHR International’s CEO survey found that 41 percent said they experienced loneliness in their job.

What’s more, the struggle at the top is translating into leaders’ inability to create followers while directly hitting sales. Our own KLCM study found that 65 percent of respondents said this year they had either boycotted or bought less from a company as a result of poor leadership perceptions.

Ketchum’s 2014 “Liquid Change” study found that 74 percent of executives reported change fatigue in their organizations. Those findings were echoed by Gallup, whose 2014 research on employee disengagement found that 68 percent of U.S. employees were unengaged or actively disengaged, costing the U.S. economy up to $550 billion a year in lost productivity. Globally, fewer than 30 percent of millennial employees — the world’s future leaders — were found to be engaged by their workplaces.

The path back to Oz

So, if leaders are consistently falling short in the eyes of those they lead — with direct implications for them individually and for their organizations commercially — then what do our conversations with more than 25,000 people worldwide tell us about the bricks that will make up the path back to leadership confidence?

Since 2012, we have distilled our research into a “Five-Year Worldview,” which asks leaders and communicators to start with a simple, honest question: “How ready are we?” and includes five best-practice lessons informed by our research.

Part of the answer revolves around leaders’ style and traits, reflected in the consistent findings that it is not words nor actions that underpin effective leadership, but both, in tandem. Open, transparent communication, leading by example and admitting mistakes have dominated the top-three spots every year so far. This underlines the critical importance of having measures in place to ensure reasonable expectation setting and to avoid “say-do” gaps between the expectations you set through what you say and what you do, especially in a crisis.

In the same vein, an exploration of the leadership style people prefer finds that globally, people seek leaders who are down-to-earth, collaborative and measured, who use everyday language, bring real-world experience and are willing to admit to their mistakes. An interesting conundrum for sure, perhaps explaining why the U.S. presidential election may be closer to call than some expect!

Equally, when it comes to the communications activities, channels and assets that have the greatest impact on consumer perception of corporate leadership, a combination of formal corporate channels (e.g., news releases, corporate reports and websites) and interactions involving the personal presence of the leader (e.g., speeches and print or broadcast interviews) held the top seven spots in 2016. This underlines consumers’ desire to form their own judgments about a corporation through both what it claims about itself and how those claims stand up to scrutiny in live, in-person situations.

At the other end of the scale, while television advertising comes in eighth, print, online and radio advertising all are in the bottom six — underlining the judicious use of paid media in the corporate communications mix. Corporate social channels, networks and assets are the meat in the sandwich between slices of corporate and personal communications and paid communications.

The leadership glass ceiling

However, as important as leaders’ style, character traits, media selection and avoidance of say-do gaps may be, the ultimate solution lies in something far more structural, cultural and personal — and therefore more challenging. A challenge that reminds us why human relations sits at the heart of this conundrum and that on the all-important issue of diversity and leadership on which we have focused this year, our role as human advisers is critical.

Two years ago, in our 2014 study, our exploration of gender and leadership revealed that while the world still looks mainly to male leaders, people are markedly more impressed with female leaders than their male counterparts. This was again the case this year, with female leaders performing better on all of the top-three traits viewed as most important to effective leadership.

Last year, we highlighted the rise of the “titleless” leader, and by far respondents favored leadership provided by the entire organization and everyone within it, rather than just by the CEO or senior management. Again, that pattern was repeated this year, with 38 percent globally stating that for a company to be seen as a leader, the organization overall and everyone within it should be leading. That compares with only 29 percent who felt the same about the CEO being the main source of leadership, the board (16 percent) and other senior management (17 percent).

And this year, our examination of leadership issues such as religion, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation has revealed a multifaceted “leadership glass ceiling” that stretches far beyond gender. Shockingly, for all of the social progress of recent decades, a clear majority of respondents view disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity and gender as standing in the way of equality of leadership opportunity — with almost half indicating the same for religion. Yet when asked who holds the key to shattering that ceiling, actions by corporations and individual responsibility left new laws and regulations trailing.

This means that with political leaders, laws and legislation seen as much a part of the problem as the solution, there is an unprecedented opportunity for the corporate sector to lead the way in shattering the complex leadership glass ceiling, with huge reputational and commercial dividends for those willing to do so in their words and their actions.

The opportunity and responsibility for communicators

Taken together, our five years of research, analysis and engagement with clients have underlined a simple fact. Leadership may be on the critical list, with enormous commercial and reputational implications for those who lead. But the solution ultimately comes down to the daily decisions made by human beings about how they structure, manage and lead their organizations — and the people within those organizations.

For a profession whose counsel is increasingly sought out by the C-suite and whose views are represented at the top table more often than ever before, the potential for us as professional communicators to help tackle the global leadership crisis is unprecedented. And yet, we need to remember that for all the revolutionary, transformative potential of technology for the communications craft, it is human relations at the heart of public relations that holds the key.

At Ketchum, we have developed a new service simply called READY by Ketchum, founded on the simple, human question leaders ask themselves every day: “How ready am I?” How ready am I to inspire our people, to tell our story, to face the media? How ready am I to give that keynote speech or to keep calm during a crisis?

Through the process, we are helping current and emerging leaders become as ready as possible. Not just for big set-piece leadership events, but for the core challenge of leadership: the everyday.

That is one of our contributions to the task of bringing human relations back into public relations. So what’s yours?

Rod Cartwright
Rod Cartwright is partner and director of Ketchum’s Global Corporate & Public Affairs Practice. For more information on the 2016 Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor, visit: ketchum.com/klcm-2016.

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