One of the most frequent problems I hear from fellow public relations professionals is that their leaders fail to communicate effectively.
I’ve identified some of the most common reasons why leaders fail to communicate effectively.
1) Don’t understand how important it is to communicate
Many leaders don’t understand how important it is to communicate effectively. They think it is a job that they can delegate. After all why have a head of communications if they have to communicate themselves. We have to help them understand that communications is a two way process and they need to be seen to be listening, learning and understanding as well as broadcasting their opinions.
Many leaders understand the importance of expert knowledge or being technically proficient because that’s why they are leaders. They are great accountants or lawyers. They also understand the importance of working hard and giving it their all.
What people forget is the greatest strength of many of our best leaders was their ability to communicate. In the BBC’s 100 Greatest Britons poll the overwhelming winner was Sir Winston Churchill. I believe one of Churchill’s greatest strengths was his ability to communicate and inspire.
2) It’s too complicated
Often organisations don’t spend enough time really thinking about what they stand for and the values they hold. As a result they focus on a set of brand messages that make it much harder to tell a meaningful story.
A good corporate message isn’t a specific set of words prescribed in a public relations strategy or emblazoned in large letters in reception, but an idea that everyone understands. It has to be simple enough and powerful enough that it can withstand being retold using different words, while retaining the meaning.
To be communicated effectively the message must be true and aligned to what the leader actually thinks and what the organisation actually does. Too many organisations attempt to use communications as a shield to hide what they really think and what they are doing.
If that’s the case then the public relations professional’s role is to help convince the leader that they have to think and act differently. To think and act better. Public relations shouldn’t be used to spin their way out of trouble.
3) They aren’t allowed to communicate effectively
Too often it is the corporate communications and public relations professionals themselves that stop leaders communicating effectively. They are stuck in the past where communication was carefully controlled and spokespeople perfect, polished and professional.
It doesn’t need to be that way. Some of the most successful communicators today are people who traditionally we’d categorise as awful communicators. Study after study shows that people trust people like themselves. People they can relate to.
This is often most apparent when it comes to social media and I hear PR professionals tell me they couldn’t trust their CEO on Twitter as it’s such a volatile environment and they might say the wrong thing. If that’s the case they don’t have a Twitter problem, but a CEO problem.
It’s time to let leaders be themselves and let their personality shine through. Authenticity matters. If they don’t have the personality to communicate well, they shouldn’t even be a leader.
Breaking bad news puts them in control.
4) Don’t want to communicate bad news
Most people want to avoid conflict. Leaders are no different. They want to be liked. They want to be respected. They don’t want to be associated with failure. They are afraid that people will want to ‘shoot the messenger’.
The reality is that the best way to deal with bad news is tell it yourself. Don’t wait for others to frame the narrative. Bad news will eventually come out.
Seizing the initiative means the leader gets to set the agenda. They get to make sure their explanation is the first one people hear. It’s an opportunity to show they care.
5) Fear, uncertainty and doubt – FUD
Leaders are used to succeeding. Sometimes communicating takes them outside of their comfort zone and they are afraid of failing.
The solution lies in the first four reasons.
If they understand the importance they can do it.
If we make it easier they can do it.
If we allow them to be themselves they can do it.
If we put them in control they can do it.