CE(R)O: chief executive (reputation) officer?

By Drew Salisbury.

Challenged by the global pandemic, the pressure on a CEO to communicate has changed dramatically.

The business landscape is, to coin a phrase, ‘unprecedented’: salient changes in client behaviour and customer habits, the freezing of budgets, cancellation of events, an unyielding reliance on tech, renewed focus on sustainable growth, displaced employees working remotely from different parts of the country – or even in different countries altogether.

The list goes on.

Arguably, the biggest shift in working patterns concerns the role of the CEO, who is now charged with navigating the company through the biggest societal turmoil in modern times. Indeed, the toolbox of the CEO needs to be wider and deeper than ever before.

This means that there is even more focus on their role as a communicator, both internally and externally.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought fast-moving and unanticipated variables, some of which existing crisis plans and teams were not equipped to handle.

With such a strong media focus on how businesses were responding to the crisis, employees, clients and other stakeholders alike looked to senior management to help alleviate their anxieties and make sense of the challenges. In many ways, the pandemic has accelerated this reconfiguration of the relationship between businesses and the general public.

Quite markedly, the CEO holds ultimate responsibility for conveying a unique vision and setting the company’s tone and image in light of such unprecedented circumstances. We need only look at business leaders in the UK to see how the pandemic has tested the abilities of executives to act as effective and compassionate communicators.

According to a survey by employer review website Glassdoor, Sage CEO Steve Hare’s leadership during the global health crisis resonated very highly with staff (95% leadership score), particularly due to the level of communication and employee engagement that he and his upper management team have maintained throughout this ordeal. Equally, Alan Hirzel, CEO of biotechnology company Abcam, achieved stellar reviews with a leadership score of 94%. Again, a significant portion of his success can be attributed to his unceasing commitment to maintaining frequent, clear communication with employees, stakeholders and clients.

The need for transparency, empathy and reassurance from business leaders has never been clearer.

On the flipside, CEOs who slip up on communicating effectively can cause profound damage to a brand. Online fashion retailer ASOS recently endured a challenging period, having been accused earlier this year of “playing Russian roulette with people’s lives” as it took significant time to respond to imminent calls for the implementation of social distancing measures in warehouses. The firm’s CEO Nick Beighton did eventually take action, acknowledging that there was “still more for us to do to continue our progress”. ASOS continues to perform strongly in a climate where remote retail is king, but the impact of successive challenges over employee conditions makes the brand vulnerable to potential criticism in the future.

Demands on business leaders are huge – not only to deliver a successful strategy – but also to address the often overlooked, invisible fears and insecurities that have naturally resulted from radical change to working patterns for employees and customers.

CEOs are no longer mythical entities at the top of the corporate food chain and our media society expects to see brands with a ‘human face’. In other words, chief executives have very much become ‘chief reputation officers’ – the visionaries who shape company culture, provide transparency to the public and convey a firm’s personality.

Companies can no longer rely solely on the gravitas of their brands: without an effective communications strategy focusing on transparency, CEOs are setting themselves up to fall short, especially during times of change and uncertainty.

This changing dynamic poses even greater challenges to CEOs around the world and, as is often the case, great leadership does not just come about ‘by accident’. It needs to be managed correctly and strategised to its maximum potential.

That is precisely why PR is becoming even more important as we navigate our way forward. PR consultants help bridge that trust-gap between a business and its current and would-be clients, customers or stakeholders.

As American speechwriter and author James C. Humes once said: “The art of communication is the language of leadership.” Like a conductor directing an orchestra, the CEO must continue to communicate consistently to stakeholders without missing a beat. At the same time, great leaders have emerged from the side lines and taken a more overt role in navigating their companies through uncharted waters.

Indeed, a crisis can expose weak leaders. It can, however, also inspire – even create – better leaders.

Drew Salisbury is a PR consultant at The PR Office.

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