The role of corporate communication in managing a CEO

King A. Wellington

Communicating effectively has become a necessity for most organisations and business executives, especially in a digital epoch where every action and word of an individual or company is instantly exposed to public scrutiny, criticism and global circulation.

Indeed, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, through its online business analysis journal ‘Knowledge@Wharton’, pointed out that “whether a company succeeds or fails in navigating a crisis, completing a merger, avoiding regulatory blunders, or executing everyday operations depends heavily on skilful communication.”

To uphold the above statement, an article published on Forbes.com by Karsten Strauss, titled ‘A day in the life of a CEO who’s crushing it’, revealed that majority of CEOs in the upper echelon of FORBES’ top small companies spend more time managing relationships.

“Whether reaching out to investors and customers or in a huddle with employees, top CEOs spend more time managing relationships than doing just about anything else”, Strauss stated.

In spite of the fact that CEOs spend majority of their time communicating, most high-ranking executives do not fully embrace communication as an integral part of their business strategy.

This is evident as most CEOs, especially in Ghana – at least most of those I have come across — are reluctant to involve their company’s communication professionals in their daily activities. To fully paint on a broad canvas the role of corporate communications in managing the CEO, let’s first look at who a CEO is.

Investopedia, the world’s leading source of financial content on the web, describes a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) as “the highest-ranking executive in a company.”

It goes on to expound that a CEO’s primary responsibilities include “making major corporate decisions, managing the overall operations and resources of a company, and acting as the main point of communication between the board of directors and corporate operations.”

In some firms, titles such as Managing Director (MD), President, Executive, et cetera, are used instead of CEO. Similarly, in government organisations, like a ministry, title such as Minister is used instead of CEO.

With the above description of who a CEO is in mind, isn’t it obvious that a company’s corporate affairs department should be part of managing the CEO? Let’s analyse some real-life incidents that occurred both locally and internationally involving a CEO, in order to reach a definite position on this subject.

You will recall that recently the CEO of Zylofon Media faced a nationwide condemnation after a post he made on social media. The public scrutinised and criticised him because of a tribute he posted on social media to the late Pricilla Opoku-Kwarteng, also known in showbiz circles as ‘Ebony’.

It is interesting to note how within the shortest possible time the post was disseminated globally. In fact, news items with headlines such as ‘Zylofon Media boss reveals how he almost freed Ebony’, ‘Ebony asked for bailout from Zylofon Media’, and ‘Zylofon Media CEO clarifies his post on Ebony’ were published on major news portals in the country.

Additionally, Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick in 2017 resigned from the company after a series of events that affected the world’s largest rideshare firm. One specific incident relevant to this article was when a video of Travis Kalanick cursing out one of Uber’s drivers became public.

The video went viral and top media outlets picked up the story with headlines such as ‘In video, Uber CEO argues with driver over falling fares’ and ‘Uber CEO Travis Kalanick caught on video arguing with driver about fares’.

Note how in each case the name of the company was dragged into the issue – the company’s name was in almost all the headlines on both occasions. This indicates that what a CEO says or how a CEO behaves, to a large extent, affects the organisation, hence communication professionals, in managing the reputation of their firm, cannot afford to ignore the CEO.

It is a bad idea to entirely leave that responsibility for the CEO’s secretariat. In fact, what a CEO, senior or junior staff does or says, whether during working hours or after work, can affect the organisation’s reputation positively or negatively. Some organisations, especially the multinational firms, in managing their reputational risk, enforce protocols to manage how employees act on some new media outlets such as social media.

In this article, I will be sharing with you some basic things you can do as a communication professional to effectively manage your CEO’s communication.

Establish an understanding with your CEO

Very often, most leaders don’t really see the need to have corporate communication play a role in managing their daily activities. I have seen CEOs who are difficult and do not usually take advice, especially if it has to do with managing their communication and personal branding.

Those that I have interacted with feel it is an easy thing to do, hence they can handle it without a communication professional.

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I have also come across other CEOs who get it; they allow their communication professionals to do their job, take their advice and appreciate their work because they understand the role communication plays in realising overall corporate strategy.

The first step to take in order for you, as a communication professional, to play a role in managing your CEO is to have an understanding with the boss himself or herself. Sit down with the CEO and get to the nitty-gritty of things.

Let the CEO understand why the Corporate Affairs Department must play a role in managing his or her daily activities. Analyse your industry and formulate scenarios that will aid you to clearly explain your point of view.

For instance, you can make a case that a CEO is the head of an organisation, hence it is important that what the CEO says, how the CEO behaves, and even his or her appearances must be managed by the Corporate Affairs Department. This is because if anything should happen, such as the CEO saying something negative or acting in an inappropriate manner, it will definitely dent the organisation’s brand.

Work together as a team

As indicated above, the CEO is the highest-ranking executive in a company, and he or she is in charge of managing the organisation. CEOs mostly have tight schedules. Other departments, units or staff members also play various roles in a CEO’s daily activities; hence you must work with others when playing a role in managing his or her daily activities.

For instance, the CEO’s secretariat usually handles all administrative tasks, and you must collaborate with them frequently. Furthermore, depending on your organisation’s organogram, departments such as general administration or services also play a vital role.

Train the CEO

It is essential that your CEO develops a solid understanding of what constitutes good communication practices. You must also insist on training initiatives to ensure that people – not just the CEO–have the ability to carry out their communications duties effectively. You have to train the CEO because it is your duty to ensure that the CEO leads by example, as well as refine his or her own skills as a communicator.

Before you conduct the training, have a discussion with your CEO about his or her strengths and weaknesses, then work with your firm’s human resource management (HRM) department to develop a training plan for him or her. Focus on areas like public speaking – delivering speeches, presentations and networking, media interviews, building online presence and personal branding.

Please be mindful that some CEOs do not want to be seen as weak, hence your CEO might not be forthcoming in terms of sharing his or her weaknesses. If your CEO does not open up, what you can do is to observe him or her critically in order to identify his or her weaknesses, and then find an appropriate way to discuss with him or her.

Maintain an activity calendar for your CEO

Once you have established an understanding with your CEO and trained him or her, the next thing to do is to create and maintain an activity calendar for your CEO. You need to know his or her weekly, monthly and yearly schedule. Work with the CEO’s secretariat on this one.

Depending on how busy your CEO is, you can get his or her secretariat to provide you with his or her daily, weekly or monthly schedule. It is good to check regularly with the CEO’s secretariat to ascertain whether there have been changes.

Once you have the schedule, go through it and identify activities that corporate communication should be involved in. Activities such as meetings, summits, and media interviews must be a priority. Ensure that you do what you have to do depending on the activity. If it is a meeting, first find out whether it is appropriate to publicise it before you do anything.

Being part of the CEO’s daily activities will give you extra contents for your organisation’s website, blog, social media platforms, podcast, setting the agenda in old media through the issuance of press statements, and many more.

One extremely important point to note though is that not all information shared with you must be publicised. Your focus should be on sharing information that will position the organisation’s brand positively. You must always seek approval before publishing anything. This is vital!

Control public activities

The Corporate affairs department must vet all public engagements of the CEO, be it media interview, delivering a speech at a summit or press conference, posting on social media, et cetera. It is extremely important that you are in control of such activities.

For interviews, you must request for a synopsis or a questionnaire from the interviewer and have an agreement with the interviewer on the area of discussion, as well as ground rules for the interview.

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You must then work with other departments in the organisation to develop draft answers for the CEO. Remember, most CEOs are very busy and you must be proactive by providing them with draft answers so they can prepare adequately.

It does not really matter if your CEO is exceptionally intelligent; you still have to put in work to provide draft answers. You must also ensure that your CEO prepares before every interview. Please be aware that speaking to a broadcast journalist is different from a print journalist. Likewise, having a radio or TV interview on phone or in-studio is different, hence you need to prepare your CEO on how to conduct himself or herself on all these platforms.

Speaking about setting ground rules for interviews, you must always make sure that there is an understanding between you and the interviewer before the interview begins. The company’s corporate affairs department must be in charge of this, not the CEO.

I recall when a particular CEO granted an interview after a conference without involving the firm’s corporate affairs department. It did not really end well for the CEO and the firm’s reputation.

Apparently, the interviewer, before starting the interview, informed the CEO that the interview will be based on what was discussed at the conference.

Immediately the interview began and the camera started rolling, the interviewer kept his promise: the first two questions were based on the conference but the last one – which is what he really wanted to ask – was based on a secret internal issue the firm was keeping out of the public domain.

This particular CEO was not trained on how to handle such a situation; hence it was a total reputation disaster. Guess what? The CEO’s answer to the last question was the one the interviewer used as his story. This and many more demonstrate why it is extremely important that all interview requests go through the corporate affairs department.

Furthermore, anytime your CEO will be delivering a speech at a public event, as a communication professional, you must ensure that you go through the final speech, prepare your CEO, check the venue, write an article from the speech and issue it right after the speech is delivered, have your press correspondents on standby, prepare your equipment – camera, branded materials and others, have your social media team ready, arrange for strategic interviews after the event, prepare your media kit, et cetera.

I remember preparing the head of an organisation who was going to address the press at a press conference. The preparation took several hours as we had to come up with answers to anticipated questions, ensure that the CEO’s delivery was smooth and on point, prepare media kit, which contained Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), the full statement and other necessary content intended to set their agenda.

Take charge of the CEO’s personal brand

Lastly, the corporate affairs department must be in charge of the CEO’s personal branding. In one of my articles, titled ‘My first week in PR: 10 tips to succeed in corporate communication’, I made mention that branding is more than just a logo, tagline and colours.

Your CEO has a personal brand, and how his or her brand is perceived will affect the organisation, hence it is your duty to ensure that your CEO’s personal branding is taken care of.

Conclusion

I must say that it is sometimes difficult to put into practice what I have shared with you because of bureaucratic bottlenecks.

It is also unfortunate, but true, that many senior leaders do not fully embrace communications as a key strategic area, even in this current age where almost every word and action of any company and its employees have become exposed to public scrutiny, criticism and global distribution through new media outlets such as social media.

However, as a professional, irrespective of any challenges you may face, always remember that it is essential to create and maintain a positive image for your organisation, as well as create a strong relationship with your stakeholders. In so doing, do not forget the ‘superstar’ of your company – your CEO – because if the CEO ‘messes up’, it will go against your organisation.

On this note, I leave you with this quote from Napoleon Hill, “Our only limitations are those we set up in our minds.” Shape the mind, and you will succeed. Stay informed!

 

The writer specializes in Reputation Management. He is a Communication Specialist at the Ministry of Energy. He is also an entrepreneur and the franchise licensee of London School of Public Relations (LSPR) in Ghana. He can be contacted via me@kingwellington.com.

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