Where do CEOs fail in communications? According to 10 interviews with business bloggers conducted by The10Company, they aren’t courageous, they’re too scripted, and they don’t acknowledge mistakes. That doesn’t apply simply to top execs’ own mistakes, either. Bloggers say CEOs should address corporate excesses in general.
“It would be great to just hear someone say that things need to change,” one said.
The10Company offers some advice to CEOs for how to do a better job of being authentic—shun corporate-speak, tell stories, be blunt—but how easy is that to do? There’s more to it than simply typing the honest truth about everything into a Twitter feed, communicators say.
The good points
The bloggers who were interviewed make good points, says Katrina Olson, a lecturer at the University of Illinois and principal at Katrina Olson Strategic Communications. Avoiding jargon is imperative for anyone who wants to seem authentic, she says.
“Not only bloggers, but today’s savvy consumers see right through this kind of wording and assume the CEO who uses them is trying to hide the truth or not disclose all the facts,” Olson says. It would be quite refreshing to hear a top executive simply state that someone was fired for embezzlement and that the company is working on new safeguards, for example, rather than hearing that someone is leaving “to spend more time with his family.”
Jonathan Bernstein, author of “Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management” and president of Bernstein Crisis Management, says he encourages CEO clients to speak to stakeholders as though they’re sitting in their living room. Lots of CEOs say they have trouble sounding anything but “CEO-like,” which Bernstein says means “stuffy.”
“Very, very few CEOs are naturally capable of this level of effective communication,” Bernstein says. “Some inherently have more skill than others. But to be really good at it, they need to practice until they’re so good it doesn’t look like they’ve rehearsed at all.”
The tough parts
Mark Schaefer of Schaefer Marketing Solutions and the blog Businesses Grow says most CEOs will never get to that level of ease and comfort. Charismatic executives such as Steve Jobs and Richard Branson are atypical, he says, though that level of authenticity would certainly be an advantage for a CEO.
However, Schaefer says the interviews with the 10 bloggers show that they’re “out of touch with reality” in terms of what CEOs can and can’t say. “It’s naïve to believe that CEOs are going to be as authentic as someone who’s blogging about gadgets,” he says.
A key reason for that difference, he says, is the law. For example, a CEO whom Schaefer knows tweeted about a meeting with shareholders only to find he had broken a Securities and Exchange Commission rule. That CEO ended up paying a fine and having to appease angry investors.
“CEOs are under a tremendous amount of scrutiny,” Schaefer says.
The public isn’t the only constituency to consider, Olson says. Being critical of another company, another CEO, or the business environment in general may go over well in the public eye, but it “may threaten a CEO’s standing with his contemporaries or perhaps be read as disloyalty,” she says.
Likewise, saying doesn’t make up for doing, Olson says. Expressing sympathy for employees who lose benefits doesn’t mean much when a CEO is taking home a big salary or huge bonuses.
“PR can’t fix an inherently and systemically flawed corporate structure,” she says.
Bernstein points out that some points the bloggers make are contradictory. It’s hard to be fearless and authentically human at the same time, he says.
“Even Seal Team Six members feel fear,” Bernstein says. “However, coming across as confident despite any fear is admirable.”
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.