Will the CEO Please Stand Up? Why We Must Improve CEO Communications
A CEO speaking publicly on behalf of their company used to signal that the end was near. I remember when Bill Ford, CEO of Ford Motor Company in 2006, appeared in a series of ads titled “Rebirth.” His message, that Ford was “determined to retake the American roadway,” came when as many as 14 factories were closing, resulting in the elimination of 30,000 jobs and senior management ranks being gutted. His presence in the ads was seen as unfavorable while so many people lost their jobs. Sure enough, less than a year later, Ford was out as CEO, and upheaval in their business continued for years. Was he the right person to give this message? Did his style of communication hurt the turnaround message at Ford? Maybe. That’s why getting CEO communications right is essential.
What are CEO Communications?
CEO communication is all the messages that a CEO shares. But when we talk about CEO comms, we have to talk about their internal communications and external communication.
Internal CEO communication includes mass communications (like Town Halls and all staff emails) as well as their more directed communications to leadership teams. And external CEO communication are things like their social media presence, quotes in press releases, public statements, and so on.
When done right, companies know how to balance and properly time both the internal and external messages their CEO sends.
Unfortunately, sometimes external messages take the priority for executive teams. And sometimes CEOs only address their employees with “doom and gloom” messages—things like layoffs, corporate restructuring, etc.
In the rest of this blog, we’ll make the argument that CEO communications really do need to evolve. CEOs can no longer just be the face of the company externally. They also need to lead and up their communication game internally.
The CEO Communications Shift
Let’s start by talking about how the perception of the CEO or executive leader communicating has drastically changed. It’s no longer like it was a few decades ago, where a CEO might only speak externally during a crisis or major change.
CEOs are no longer the communicator of last resort. They must be visible to employees and the public. This shift has occurred as a result of the changing landscape of media as well as fluctuating trust. The Edelman Trust Barometer over the last few years has found that as trust in institutions like media and government have waned, employees have been looking at their companies as a more trusted source of information.
It’s this pressure from employees and shareholders that have really pulled CEOs forward:
- 60% of employees globally say that when considering a job, they expect the CEO to speak publicly about controversial social and political issues that they care about.
- 81% think “CEOs should be personally visible when discussing public policy with external stakeholders or work their company has done to benefit society.”
Most employees want their CEO to speak on topics like jobs and the economy, technology, and wage inequality. This isn’t surprising, considering the current state of the world and the fact that nearly every other source of information is seen as untrustworthy.
The question is, will CEOs step up and make sure these topics are on their roadmaps?
The Rise of the Celebrity CEO
While not all companies have CEOs who have stepped up to communicate more often and be the public face of a brand. But there are many companies that have become so ubiquitous that their CEOs are now household names.
You’ve likely heard the term “Celebrity CEO” before. This is when a company CEO reaches the same level of fame as a Hollywood A-Lister.
Some prime examples of celebrity CEOs are Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Richard Branson—the list goes on.
You might notice that you have a reaction—positive or negative—to the names on that list. And that’s the double-edged sword of the rise of CEOs as more public figures. The cost of being in the spotlight is scrutiny. So, CEOs have a huge impact on the acceptance of your company in today’s global landscape.
Regardless of how you feel about some of these “celebrity CEOs,” they have done one thing right: they are willing to speak up. It’s up to company communication teams to make sure they are also considering the company brand, values, and leading the culture from the top.
Why All CEOs Must Be Expert Communicators
Of course, not all CEOs who step into their role as “Chief Communicator” reach celebrity status. That’s actually most of our company CEOs. But that doesn’t mean that they haven’t achieved celebrity status with your most important audience: your employees.
Every employee at your company is probably aware of your CEO. But how well they know and trust that CEO comes down to your executive communications strategy.
CEOs can’t just be the face of the company, they have to be well-versed in the socio-political climate and their employees’ needs and take a stance…all while coming across as relatable but authoritative.
If your CEOs don’t address their employees regularly and strike the right tone, you waste the potential to build stronger trust and, therefore, a stronger culture.
CEO Communications in the Spotlight: Will the CEO Please Stand Up?
We can all agree that your CEO is the face of your company. Brand spokespeople, brand advocates, and paid influencers won’t cut it. CEOs need to be the ones to stand up.
But what should CEOs be communicating about? What other than those tough messages about layoffs or shifts in strategy?
The truth is, they need to go beyond simply being the head of your business strategy. They’re the head of your culture. Your vision. They aren’t just in charge of a business. They’re in charge of the people. And it’s time they started communicating about the things that matter most to their employees.
That means that internal CEO communications have to include:
- Recognition of team and individual accomplishments
- Tying business decisions back to employee pain points, not just the bottom line
- Change management
- Culture communications
- Community impact
- Social issues that impact their employees
Senior leaders must address these topics authentically, but they also need to do their research. Many executive leaders come across as tone deaf when they don’t make enough of an effort to understand and relate to their people.
How Often Should a CEO Communicate with Employees?
Because we are advocating for CEOs to communicate about so much more than just business strategy, it begs the question: how often should you be sending CEO communications?
The answer will vary based on your business, but we’d recommend finding a regular cadence. And that cadence needs to be often enough that employees don’t feel like their leader is absent.
Many companies might only have their CEO communicate every quarter or month. Is that enough?
We’d argue that a weekly cadence (or every other week) is good to aim for. Your CEO Communications plan might look something like this:
- Weekly on Fridays: Culture and recognition communications
- Monthly: Business update, highlighting specific initiatives, wins, and KPIs
- Quarterly: All Hands meeting to zoom out and look at the health of the business, address concerns, and talk about broader impact of the business on the community
The only time you should break your cadence is if you need to address something urgently. This could be events happening in the world, crisis at your company, etc. Otherwise, the cadence will help employees know when to expect updates. And by following a regular schedule, you avoid your CEO only communicating bad news.
Synchronizing Your Internal and External Comms Strategies
The other important thing to remember with CEO communication is that your CEO needs to communicate both internally and externally. CEO communication needs to be robust, sincere, and consistent across all channels—internal and external.
Too often, external channels for stakeholders and shareholders are prioritized when major changes are announced at a company. Maybe the message misses the mark for employees. Or vice versa. Senior leadership shares promises to employees about positive, social change or improving the employee experience, but these promises never see the light of day. They feel inauthentic.
You can’t make internal comms the afterthought. You have to get these two strategies in sync.
How do you do that?
- Regular stakeholder meetings. Your heads of internal and external communication, as well as marketing and PR, all need to meet often to discuss what is being communicated across channels. This is an opportunity to not only give each other a heads up, but to work more efficiently together. Maybe marketing has a great campaign that should be adapted for employees too. This meeting will help you all get on the same page and maximize efforts.
- CEO trust. One of the most important things is to build a strong relationship with your CEO. This will help you explain to them why it’s so important to communicate often and on a broader range of topics. Without your CEO’s support, you’ll never hit a cadence let alone get internal comms on par with external.
- Bring the data. Show your stakeholders and C-Suite that your CEO communications strategy is working. The best way to do that is with quantitative data from the campaigns you share as well as qualitative feedback from your employees.
Start Communicating Today
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, if your CEO isn’t actively communicating, we urge you to help them understand their evolving role. As a comms leader, you need to advocate that the CEO take action. Staying silent in these times will result in significant consequences for your company.
The benefits of improving CEO communications are significant. Think about the long-term value that can come from bringing your senior leadership forward. Deep brand recognition and market exposure help progress your company and power a winning culture that will attract and retain talent. Your vendors, business partners, employees’ families, and your new hires are watching. And the stakes have never been higher.
Will your CEO rise to the challenge?
About the Author
Michael Marino is the Vice President of Marketing where he oversees the creation and execution of theEMPLOYEEapp’s marketing programs. Before joining the team, Mike held marketing leadership positions in both the B2B and DTC spaces in channels that include media, manufacturing, and professional services. Mike is passionate about demand generation, mar-tech, and being able to create campaigns that connect with Internal Comms audiences.
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