Communicators have to be selective about the frequency and nature of the top executive’s participation, balancing the benefits and risks of bringing a powerful voice into the conversation.
Use of the CEO as one of the company’s primary communicators is influenced by industry norms, the nature of the message, and the target audience – with cultural and generational differences in how stakeholders respond to a CEO as an important consideration.
Council members highlight the risk of the CEO’s personality and corporate identity becoming intertwined, as well as the potential to polarise media opinion.
The CEO must be regarded as credible, authentic, empathetic, and transparent if their communications are to have a positive impact. In some cases, other employees may have greater cut-through on a specific issue or with a certain audience.
Today, the toolbox of a communications professional is wider and deeper than ever before. From traditional resources such as press releases or spokespeople pertinent to the issue at hand, to newer methods such as social media, blogs or interactive multimedia platforms, the array of options is continually evolving. Within this modern environment, the medium and spokesperson can be as important as the message itself, with the decisions made by corporate communicators playing a crucial role in shaping the image the company is able to create for itself.
Among the decisions facing communicators is the role that the CEO should play in supporting stakeholder engagement. Here, the devil is in the detail.
On the whole, Reputation Council members see the Chief Executive as playing an important communications role. There is a caveat though: the leader is not a communications ‘silver bullet’. Their involvement should be assessed carefully, balancing risk and reward, with consideration given to whether the CEO’s personality and characteristics fit the specific brief.
Balancing risk and reward
In balancing the potential risk and reward of involving the CEO, Council members highlight some key factors to consider.
Overexposure. This could erode the impact of their voice and place unnecessary focus on less important issues.
Difficulty in distinguishing the person from the company. High-profile CEOs can generate increased scrutiny and pose a challenge when personal views differ from the corporate position.
Personality traits could undermine effectiveness.
Personification of the company’s values. The CEO is the company’s ambassador, conveying a vision and setting the company’s tone and image.
A sense of authority. The CEO’s voice emphasises the importance of the message, maximising the chances of engagement.
The face of the company in a major crisis. Instilling confidence, being transparent and outlining short-term and long-term actions.
The portrait of a top communicator
As one might expect, the CEO needs to be a well-rounded leader for him or her to run the organisation successfully. There are, however, useful characteristics to take into account when looking to apply their role to the world of communications. The views of the Reputation Council can be distilled into three guiding principles.
Credible and reliable
In order to come across as an authoritative figure in front of key stakeholder groups, competence in the job is essential, as well as a solid track record delivering on the company’s vision. Key audiences need to believe that the person in charge of the organisation is a capable individual who will be in the post beyond the short-term and can take decisive action to steer the company in the right direction.
Charismatic, confident and empathetic
Successfully running the business is simply not enough for the CEO to become a valuable asset for the communications function. He or she needs to appeal to and captivate audiences. They need to be relatable but display confidence and a feeling of security both in the tone and content of the message.
Honest, transparent and authentic
Displaying genuine motivations, with the best intentions at heart, is also vital. The credibility of the message, the CEO themself and the entire company are all at risk if stakeholders do not sense authenticity.
When the CEO becomes a celebrity
What happens when the CEO is so good at being the figurehead of the company that their name becomes synonymous with that of the organisation? Examples such as Steve Jobs at Apple, Richard Branson at Virgin or Elon Musk at Tesla come to mind. Very often, these are strategic choices made in the early years, where a founder seeks the spotlight to help boost the profile of the company.
Overall, Council members feel that this has proven a successful strategy in the past for many, but it is a tactic that should be carefully thought through.
There is a need to consider not only the profile and abilities of the individual, but also industry dynamics, cultural nuances and generational differences.
All in all, Council members see some risks if the image of the company and CEO merge into one in the public eye.
In situations where the CEO is an appointed figure who will lead the company for a number of years, rather than the founder and essence of the company, their profile should be moderated accordingly.
Call on your CEO, but do so after careful consideration.
A communications strategy is successful when it’s able to deliver a clear and compelling message to the audience it is trying to address.
The company needs to act like a well-coordinated orchestra to deliver a compelling symphony.
The communications professional, as the conductor, can achieve this with a greater array of instruments than ever before. Here, the CEO can play the lead tenor or soprano able to unlock attention and convey the essence of the ensemble in a way no one else can.
However, like the valuable resource that they are, the CEO needs to appear at the right time and in coordination with the rest of the company.
Methodology: 154 interviews conducted with Reputation Council members between 25th June and 12th November 2018.