Harold Burson on the Stifling of CEO Communications

November 27, 2017

In a recent article at Chief Executive magazine, Harold Burson, APR, Fellow PRSA, the 96-year-old founder of Burson-Marsteller, shared his thoughts on leadership today.

Burson said that he regrets the loss of CEO-statesmen with respected voices who could speak on behalf of the business community.

Today, CEOs seldom raise their heads above the corporate parapet, lest they draw arrows from Twitter or Facebook. Among the few chief executives still courageous enough to speak their minds, Burson feels, are Starbucks’ Howard Schultz and Chase’s Jamie Dimon.

With public trust in many companies eroding, he wonders why more CEOs aren’t speaking up on issues that matter to them. He blames social media, digital communications and the loss of privacy, which have made it risky for business leaders to communicate. Shifting cultural values are also crippling communications for executives, he says.

But it’s the rise of activist investors and demands for short-term gains that trouble Burson most.

“People once recognized that all business is cyclical,” he said. “Yes, business should maximize returns for shareholders, but it’s not realistic to maximize returns for every quarter, quarter after quarter, indefinitely.”

CEOs were once expected to produce good products at reasonable prices and treat suppliers and employees fairly but, today, they’ve lost the long view and are forced to focus on immediate shareholder value, Burson said. — Greg Beaubien


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