CEOs Shift Into Gear As Communicator in Chief

by Cheryl Carr on July 9, 2012

I distinctly remember the day my boss told me to prepare a speech for the company CEO. In 15 minutes.

I laughed. But when I saw beads of perspiration form on his brow and spied another executive hovering anxiously outside my office door, I knew he wasn’t kidding. Mr. CEO was flying in from corporate headquarters and due to land within the hour. Apparently he didn’t have time to prepare a speech to present at an employee meeting.

“Well,” I said dismissively. “I can probably come up with an opening paragraph, and then he can ad lib the rest.”

“No, he can’t do that,” my boss countered. “He always reads from a prepared speech. Always.”

I channeled my inner reporter and reluctantly hammered out a prepared speech (on a typewriter!) for Mr. CEO. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was passable, which was all that was expected of a corporate speech in the 1980s. And, yes, my boss did recover from his panic attack.

So when I read about a new study of CEOs and their perspectives about the communications function, I recalled my harrowing speechwriting experience and how the importance of communications was pretty much reduced to routine speeches and bland corporate news.

How times have changed – and what a relief from the “corporate speak” of just a few decades ago.

According to a new study by the IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) Research Foundation, CEOs view communications as a key leadership skill. Many assume the position of chief communications officer with the attitude that it is a necessity in today’s business world.

Contrast this finding with an IABC study conducted in 1988 that found only 17 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs took an active role in the communications functions or considered it important to their day-to-day routine.

Twenty-five years ago, communications was a soft discipline. Today, it is a C-suite must-have, often found at the top of the business agenda.

The CEO who embraces communications leadership is:

1. Adept in communicating with all stakeholders, including employees on every level, board members, investors (or donors), and customers. That means CEOs need to have messages down pat for each stakeholder group, plus deliver those messages in a sincere and genuine manner.

2. An active listener of all audiences mentioned above, plus someone who encourages a culture of research to continually measure the company’s effectiveness and to keep a finger on the marketplace pulse.

3. A confident executive who welcomes criticism, especially in terms of presentation skills and speaking to the media. CEOs need to surround themselves with people who aren’t afraid to tell them how to be better.

4. Willing to embrace change, to see how new communications tools might pose an advantage to the organization as well as accepting of today’s demand for information delivered quickly and honestly.

We at Carr Marketing Communications would add a fifth quality:

5.   Prepared to take on a crisis. A CEO who can anticipate a crisis and who can guide his/her organization through a terrible public ordeal is a true leader.

One of the many roles today’s executive has to juggle is communications. It takes articulation, confidence and a willingness to share information to be worthy of the title, Communicator in Chief.