Chief Executive Officers are the face of the company. Unfortunately this face too frequently is turned inwards.
The Harvard Business Review tracked the behavior of corporate leaders and found that internal constituencies absorbed 70% of their working hours, with 72% of time overall spent in meetings. Strikingly, the study showed that CEOs spend just 3% of their time with customers, 3% with investors, 2% with public policy and community audiences, and just 1% with journalists. While the majority of CEOs are acutely aware of the need for external engagement, time is limited. The challenge is managing pressure from a variety of stakeholders: investors seeking earnings visibility and disruptive leadership, consumers pushing for more action on societal issues, regulators and political audiences working to tightly define corporate responsibilities. Effective CEOs need a defined, consistent profile, one that comes from effective communications.
Fundamentally, this is not about choosing communications channels. “Should CEOs write a blog?”, “should CEOs tweet?” or “should CEOs speak at the employers federation conference?” are the wrong kind of questions. The starting point must be the clarity, consistency, and authenticity of the story the CEO is telling.
Let’s examine each of these.
For public companies, “the story” is often assembled in the language of the investor and analyst community. Indeed, quarterly reporting, by its nature, constrains ‘forward-looking’ projections. B2B and finance companies, in particular, often do a poor job at then transposing that investor language into a compelling customer-centred story that reflects customer pain points and shows a real understanding of the buyer journey. The trend to use separate websites for talking to customers and investors can make that worse. CEOs often default into the investor language (like RevPAR from the hotel industry or ARPU from mobile comms) because they are used to telling the story to investors and analysts.
Effective CEOs talk about customers’ worlds with credibility. This means going beyond “technology,” especially buzzwords such as AI or big data, and beyond just sympathising with the “regulatory challenges” their clients might face. External audiences want the proof and want the detail. The CEO needs to own the tech story and convey it convincingly, and show understanding of the market dynamics the company’s customers face.
Talking about the company in a clear way must be central. This should align well to the company’s mission statement and vision, and indeed to the first words on the company’s website. If there is a consistent gap between how the CEO talks about the company and how the company describes itself in writing, then something needs to give.
It’s important not to stop talking to the media when the news is bad – that gets noticed by publications. Most CEOs, beyond a handful of huge companies, can’t switch on and switch off media interest to suit themselves. Consistent openness with relevant media, managed carefully, will for most companies secure a higher share of voice over time than a more short-termist approach.
Interviews by CEOs are almost always more likely to result in coverage than interviews by other executives, but there are certainly reporters and publications where it is worth cultivating relationships. Editorial breakfasts can be a good forum, for example with the FT or The Economist.
Authenticity from CEOs is critical, especially because there are aspects of external communications that can’t be delegated, such as media interviews and conference and industry platforms. Most CEOs know they needed to be stretched by their advisors as they grow into the role, but ultimately CEOs must be comfortable in their own skin with what they are saying publicly, in terms of content and background knowledge.
Tone and empathy must be appropriate to the situation. A successful company under fire around its impact on society needs a softer tone (and some broader CSR content), whereas a company with commercial challenges generally would want the CEO talking more prosaically about customers needs and company turnaround.
Like most advice to CEOs, this is easier to say than to execute. What can be crucial is to mainstream external communications into the CEO’s activities. That’s not just about a communications executive with a seat at the table, but about others on the management team understanding the communications opportunities and challenges the company faces and what approach it is taking. For CEOs, communications is not an adjunct to the job. In many ways, it is the job.
Andrew Marshall is Cognito’s Deputy CEO