Published on CommPro.biz
CEOs often lament that they feel isolated in their role and that it’s hard to get anyone to tell them what they really think. Much to their own dismay, CEOs operate in a bubble. Executive assistants zealously protect access to their calendar. Trips are carefully orchestrated, and employees in all locations are somehow always prepared for “surprise” visits. Speeches are largely scripted by someone else and delivered in front of audiences who have a vested interest in what CEOs have to say. No matter where CEOs go, those protective bubbles go with them.
What makes this especially frustrating for CEOs is that they know their company’s growth and reputation are being determined by people outside of the bubble—by the company’s external stakeholders. Among these audiences are customers, shareholders, analysts, industry insiders, and the media.
CEOs meet with their top customers and vendors, but typically, not the end user of their product or service. With the exception of big announcements or crises, the media—and preparation to speak to the media—get a small fraction of the CEOs time…if any at all.
There are a number of reasons for this. Building relationships with top customers is a necessary part of driving revenue growth. For CEOs of public companies, keeping shareholders, analysts, and potential investors informed and in touch with senior management is a necessary part of driving the performance of their stock. After all, maximizing shareholder value is Job #1 for most CEOs. Spending time with peer and industry groups helps CEOs understand significant trends and opportunities in the marketplace, while positioning the company as an industry leader.
And arguably, another reason is that CEOs are typically most comfortable with these audiences. These groups want to speak with the CEO and have a vested interest in hearing what the CEO has to say. They have a lot in common with the CEO—they speak the same language of business. These are the external stakeholders that enable the CEO to enjoy the greatest amount of control and build the strongest relationships.
The media and the direct consumer are a far more diverse and challenging group. Meeting with more than a handful of consumers is physically impossible, and spending time with reporters, who may or may not write a story, is a seemingly inefficient use of precious time.
But there’s a long trail of companies whose reputations have been damaged or destroyed by poor communication with external stakeholders. And with fewer journalists to cover more news, more journalists take their cues from what other journalists have reported and what private citizens are posting online. With social media and increasingly sophisticated search engine capabilities, all these separate stories and individual experiences can be reported and connected instantly, publicly, globally, and forever.
Today, a CEO’s ability to communicate powerfully with the media and individual customers is the key to success in a world where everyone and everything is connected.
Because of the communication platform and the intense scrutiny that comes with the position, the CEO is the single role with the power to humanize an otherwise faceless, anonymous organization. How they can do this with the public is through both traditional and social media.
Not only are people who feel like they have a rational and emotional connection to a company more likely to buy its products and services, they are also more forgiving when there’s a problem, as it inevitably happens. When the iphone4 came out with a faulty antenna, customers’ complaints could be heard around the world. CEO Steve Jobs only made the negative publicity worse when he publicly responded that it was the customers’ fault for holding the phone wrong. But after Apple fixed the problem, the noise stopped and customers were lining up at midnight again, eager to be the first to buy the next product. Because the press and public felt they had a relationship with Jobs, they accepted his quirks as part of the passion and were willing to forgive his missteps.
The total assimilation between the CEO and the company has significant benefit, and risk, under any circumstance. The risk is heightened exponentially, however, in the event of a crisis. Tony Hayward of BP Oil, Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski, former HP CEO Mark Hurd, and media giant Rupert Murdoch have all damaged their company’s reputation due to their own words and actions, or lack thereof. While crises of these types are not new, what is new is how much social media has amplified and accelerated their effects. There is simply nowhere to hide.
All eyes are on the CEO, with colleagues and employees looking to see how to act, react, and feel. The same is true with external stakeholders, but even more so. Unlike insiders, only a few of these external audiences ever meet the CEO personally; most see them only through the lens of other people.
Effective CEOs go out of their way to get real, unfiltered feedback, not only from within the organization, but from without. CEOs who have mastered this new type of communication do a number of things well:
Social media has removed the barriers between the CEO and the individuals, who buy, use, write about, or are somehow impacted by what the company sells. By shifting their thinking, making these high-stakes audiences a priority, and developing the skills to communicate well with them, CEOs can deliver business value faster, protect the reputation of their company, and build their brand.
Margery Myers, a principal and executive coach at Bates Communications, helps senior executives become powerful communicators who drive outstanding business results. She draws from her experience in leading teams and advising C-Suite executives as Senior Vice President of Communications at Dunkin’ Brands, and prior to that at Talbots. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting www.bates-communications.com.