Building trust is the basis of effective leadership and communication. And CEOs should be at the heart of that.
So says Arielle Lapiano of law firm, Paul Hastings, whose recent webinar appearance (c/o Signal AI) was about helping organisations make the case for business leaders to be more active with communication in 2020.
The latest edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer places business leaders (namely, CEOs) smack bang in the middle of trustworthy people in positions of influence and authority. With a percentage score of 51 (the so-called “neutral” zone), they lag behind scientists (80), community members (69) and fellow citizens (65) – each occupying the “trust” zone; conversely, they outstrip religious leaders (46), government leaders (42) and the very wealthy (36), whose scores put them in the “distrust” basket.
Though trust in CEOs may be neutral, their employees – 92% of them according to Edelman – believe they should be communicating about major issues such as climate change, training for jobs of the future, ethical use of technology, income equality and diversity.
As Lapiano says, this is giving business leaders a “role in society beyond shareholder profitability”.
Getting leaders to speak out about business is challenging
The potential influence, value and impact (positive and negative) of your CEO or senior executives making public statements is significant. Consequently, it’s no surprise that even the most accomplished senior leader may not relish the media spotlight, the scrutiny of a journalist and having to make a decision in milliseconds about the next thing they say.
Media training is a useful investment for any business leader: not only for the practical experience of being “grilled” (albeit in a simulated environment) but for the discipline of preparation and practice ahead of a date with the media.
However, according again to Lapiano, many CEOs don’t prioritise making public announcements beyond what is obviously related to the business, i.e. selling products and services.
So, how do you make the case that CEOs and senior management should be communicating more, not less and perhaps from a more colourful “palette” of topics?
Top tips for getting your CEO to speak for the business (and more)
A useful exercise (care of Arielle Lapiano) to begin the process of persuading your leaders that communicating better is useful to the company includes the questions:
- What are the business/brand/other imperatives to encourage leadership to say “yes” to communications?
- Who are the (visible) people/companies you can use as examples (of good communications)?
- What issues align with business/brand objectives?
- What are the current imperatives that a communications initiative could be added to?
Also, you have to know the factors that will convince CEOs of the imperative to communicate along with the “radioactive” topics to stay away from.
Equally, if your CEO or others in your organisation tend to follow the actions and behaviour of particular companies, they might want their communications activities to be at least comparable, or even better (especially if a competitor or aspirational other company is not visible for a specific theme or topic).
In addition, our advice to senior leaders and their in-house advisers is:
- What topic or theme does the CEO/the company want to “take ownership” of?
- What do you know – or what information can you access – that’s new to the media and the readers/listeners/viewers?
- What can you talk about that nobody else is talking about?
- What topics are both relevant and authentic to your business and the senior executive speaking about them?
Another interesting approach suggested by Lapiano is forming an in-house committee on leadership editorial, allowing employees to identify the topics they think their leaders should be speaking about.
Other top tips for planning for your CEO (or others) to communicate
- Leaders have to use accessible language: clear, concise, honest.
- Encourage other people on the leadership team to speak on behalf of the business. As Lapiano says, organisation-wide initiatives may be “lower stakes” topics to address.
- Potential topics for the right spokesman, speaking with authority and authenticity (and as long as the topic isn’t “radioactive” for the organisation) could include: equal pay, discrimination/harassment, environment, personal data, healthcare, training.
- A communications plan needs to involve:
- Insight development:
- Understand the market
- Understand the CEO
- Research competitors, clients
- Strategic agenda:
- Desired outcome
- Business/ brand objectives
- Key themes, messages, plus information/data
- Channels and tactics
- Town Hall talks, etc.
- Identification and creation of calendar for communications campaigns
- Execute and evaluate.
A final point fulfils the old adage that “actions speak louder than words”. Business leaders can’t afford to merely say the right thing but must be a real model for their organisation’s mission and purpose.
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