Hardly a day goes by when a CEO isn’t vilified in traditional or social media for some comment, slip-up or transgression. For many, the question must be not if but when it is their turn to be in the firing line. What, many will ask, is the point of building up my profile when it just increases my chances of being attacked if I make a mistake?
In my experience, despite these concerns, the case for investment in good CEO communications remains stronger than ever. Research suggests that customers are more inclined to buy products and services from a company if they approve of the leader. (I oversaw a research project three years ago that found 75% of business people thought a CEO’s reputation influenced how customers felt about a company).
But the type of leadership that generates approval has changed. Today it is much more about being empathetic and approachable, being concerned about broader society and being willing to interact via social and otherwise. The days of the macho, corner-office CEO emerging once a quarter to pronounce have long gone.
If you’re taking over leadership of an organisation, then how much time to spend on PR and communications is an important decision because there will be many other tasks competing for your time. There will be a degree of scrutiny and expectation that he or she hasn’t experienced. This decision will, for most, be further complicated by the growing importance and immediacy of social media as the prime platform for staff, customers and influencers.
In my opinion, there are three key elements to consider: narrative, tone-of-voice and choice of channels.
These days, observers expect the CEO narrative to be about more than numbers, unless the business is in turn-around. In addition to views on product innovation, customer needs and market trends, corporate purpose and social responsibility are also vital ingredients.
Consumers, especially millennials, expect businesses to be aware of their impact on the planet and to rectify any shortcomings.
The question is how much to dial the narrative up, especially in the early months. Too little makes the CEO look uncaring and remote; too much and he or she looks self-important and/or distracted from the task at hand.
Tone of voice
Tone of voice also requires some careful thought. A balance needs to be sought between confidence and empathy.
Leaders need to be confident enough to give their views on issues and trends concerning the future of commerce, society and the planet and these need to be distinctive in some way for the world to take note. The more distinctive and forthright they are, the greater the airtime they will command –but the risk is higher.
Conversely a demonstration of empathy demands some humility, a willingness to engage with staff and consumers whether via social or face-to-face, and to be seen to listen and respond. And it goes without saying that there are risks inherent when engaging with customers online.
‘Permission to engage’ is also therefore a consideration for tone of voice - too formal or, at the other extreme, too ‘matey’, can be both be a turn-off.
Finally, the CEO needs to prioritise his or her channels of communications carefully. Those who are naturally communicative and confident can use social to talk about both their business – and, in some cases, their personal lives. This can increase the CEO’s authenticity and generate greater goodwill amongst stakeholders that may be useful when things go wrong.
Others may prefer to focus on smaller, more traditional face-to-face communications like staff birthday breakfasts, blogger dinners or personal profiles with favoured media. In this latter case the CEO will be relying on these third parties to pass on his or her messages.
Many CEOs, of course, will embrace both routes and more besides. The key is to find a mix of platforms and channels that suit both the strengths and preferences of the CEO and the needs of the marketplace. And, if they really want to minimise their external communications, they need to find a #2 who relishes it.
In short, a strong personal profile is a pre-requisite to CEO success in the modern business world, but there is no way a CEO can avoid some of the risks associated with personal PR. Of course, good advice and support from the corporate comms team can help minimise risk, but not all of it.
However, if the CEO can show a little of what he or she is really like through PR and communications then, when trouble strikes, they will be more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt and thus live to fight another day.
Giles Fraser is co-founder of Brands2Life
Image credit: 3910743/Pixabay