For better or for worse, your CEO is the face of your organization.
Whether you want her to be or not, your CEO will be the person that reporters and the public turn to for a response when anything newsworthy happens. She’ll be the face that represents your organization in the midst of a crisis. She’ll be the voice that people listen to in order to understand your organization’s point of view.
In terms of public perception, your CEO often is your company. That means that it’s incredibly important for her to communicate well.
Because of this, your CEO needs to shine – but, in spite (and because) of the individual responsibility that she carries, she can’t shine without help. You need to fight for a place at the table so that you can play a role in supporting your CEO. Anytime a CEO speaks on behalf of the organization, she must have a communication team behind her.
Your CEO and your communication team need to work together to communicate well and present your organization in an accurate and positive light. With that in mind, here are six things to keep in mind as you work to help your CEO shine.
When CEOs (or most people, for that matter) communicate based solely on their own decisions and opinions, they are much more susceptible to emotional responses that veer off message. This is dangerous territory. When they do this, they are representing themselves more than they’re representing the organization. They are also much more likely to say things that can be taken out of context and make for negative sound bites.
Your CEO shouldn’t be a one-person communication department. In order to present the best message in the clearest way possible, he needs to have a team behind him. From communication training, to message development, to prepping for a media interaction, communication with the media is a team effort. Don’t let your CEO go it alone.
2. Don’t “Rip and Read”
If successful communication is a team game, then your team needs to work together to practice your game plan. The worst thing you can do is to have your CEO “rip and read” your media statement – that is, to receive the statement right before speaking with the media, and to deliver it before practicing and processing it. That’s like going into a game without ever having a practice.
You need to prepare your statement in advance, and you need to give your CEO time to practice it so that he can own it.
As you draw up your statement, here are five things that must be included in your game plan.
- Honesty – You must be willing to admit what you don’t know. If you don’t, you’ll end up looking foolish.
- Humility – You also need to be willing to admit your mistakes. Be genuine and compassionate.
- Focus on Stakeholder interest – Make sure that you address the interests of stakeholders. During a crisis, the public may be stakeholders who are invested in your handling of the issue. Make sure that you give them the information they need.
- Resist Absolutes – You don’t want to make promises that you can’t keep. Stay away from words like “never” and “always”. As much as you may want to, you can’t control everything. Focus on what you know and on what you’re doing. Don’t make promises about what will “never” or “always” happen from here on out.
- Reinforce Your Brand – Ideally, you already have a strong brand with built-up credibility, which is tremendously helpful when you’re addressing a crisis. Whether that’s the case or not, you need to be sure to reinforce your brand during your interactions with the media by remaining on message.
All of these ingredients must be in a crisis statement, and your CEO can’t look like he is reading the statement for the first time. He needs to make time to practice this, so that when the time comes to deliver the message, he’s already familiar with the game plan.
3. Simmer Down Now
Don’t let your CEO fight back emotionally. We’ve seen CEOs respond with anger or frustration after their companies have received negative press or been misunderstood. That’s the worst thing that can happen.
Unfortunately, you can’t fight these battles in the press. You don’t have any control over what makes it into the story and the headline. We’re not saying that your CEO shouldn’t talk about issues that he’s passionate about, but the response must be strategic, structured, and positive.
Make sure that your CEO is calm and collected, even if he believes that your organization is being treated unfairly by the news media.
4. Don’t Change the Headline
On a related note, as much as you can prevent it, don’t let your CEO go off topic. This leaves her open to dangerous conversational directions.
Most CEOs know a little (or even a lot) about everything going on in their organizations. This high-level knowledge is essential when it comes to performing their jobs, but it’s dangerous when it comes to media communications. At any given time, there are likely many events or issues going on that CEOs can speak to. That doesn’t mean that those are topics that they should speak to.
When a reporter asks a tangential question, your CEO probably knows something about the answer, but likely hasn’t been prepped to give a good response. An unfavorable sound bite and an unflattering headline may be the result.
Don’t let a tangential issue become the main headline of the story. Make sure that your CEO has practiced the technique of bridging, and that she’s prepared to bridge the discussion back to the message at hand.
5. In a Crisis, You’re the Play-By-Play – Your CEO is Color
Remember, CEOs are experts at high-level information. They don’t need to be bogged down with the minute details of every issue. Frankly, it’s probably a waste of their time.
Instead, during media interactions, your CEO’s role should be to offer compassionate, key messages. He doesn’t need to speak to every detail. The rest of the communication team can handle that. Make sure that he stays in his sweet spot by focusing on addressing issues at a high level.
6. Train, Train, Train
Many people view media training as a once-and-done activity. It’s something to check off the list, which, once completed, serves to prepare people for media communication for the rest of their lives. We’ve had people tell us that their executives didn’t need media training, because they’d already had a training session ten years ago.
Training needs to be repeated. Would you trust your grasp of a foreign language if you’d last spoken it ten years ago? You might remember some basic phrases, but chances are you’d be poorly equipped to have a conversation. Similarly, would any athlete forego practicing for ten years and then expect to jump right back into competition? She’d probably be severely overmatched.
The same is true for media training. In order to “play the game” or “speak the language” of media communications, frequent practice is needed. We recommend that your CEO be trained at least once a year in order to stay sharp. Consistent media training can often be the difference between communicating well and rambling off-topic into dangerous territory.
Your CEO is the face of your organization, but she needs a team behind her to succeed. Keep these six things in mind, and you’ll be able to help your CEO communicate well.
And when your CEO shines, your organization does, too.