Friday, June 04, 2010

Is your CEO ready to be out front...and upfront? Taking the long view

I'm struck this month with CEOs and their public statements--always a tough balancing act, but lately, the hits have been strong and the misses a mile wide of the mark, and very quick to draw public ire or piled-on skepticism.  A sampling of the misses:
  • Two emails to AT&T's CEO from a customer yielded a cease-and-desist notice from the company's executive response team...followed by an apology.  The topic of the emails? iPhone eligibility dates.
  • BP's CEO Tony Hayward is featured on a YouTube channel specifically designed for crisis response to the massive oil spill.  As Make the Logo Bigger blog points out, however, updates haven't happened since May 28--even the oft-ignored but useful type that says, "we don't have anything new to report."  Even a "nothing new" statement is useful when millions are watching your company's own live-stream, 24/7 video of the environmental disaster in progress.  Hayward had his own apologizing to do for saying "There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I'd like my life back," and for calling the spill "relatively tiny" when it is the worst in U.S. history and in the top 3 spills worldwide.
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was observed during a live interview as "visibly uncomfortable and sweating profusely" when questioned about the company's privacy policies. (Video at the link.)
Contrast those swings and misses with these hits that really connected:
  • Former AOL CEO and now philanthropist Steve Case maintains a useful, frequent and funny Twitter feed, among other channels.  He shares facts about his family events, charities he supports, industry news and on occasion, pokes fun at rumors about himself in a non-anxious way that many CEOs would do well to study.  Check out this recent tweet, above.

I've posted previously about other CEOs who do this well, including Marriott Chairman Bill Marriott and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. Not surprisingly, both men also are using blogs and other social networks to open up conversations with customers and employees.

Communications directors know full well that not every CEO has the talents to handle upfront and out-front tasks, particularly in crisis.  But a conversation worth having with your CEO--perhaps once a year at minimum--could emphasize the communications contexts she needs to keep in mind whenever facing a public audience, be it the lone customer via email or a nation of anxious folks watching your oil spill.   (And for those of you thinking that nonprofits and universities "have it easier" when it comes to public statements by the CEO, keep in mind that alumni are like shareholders and nonprofits, too, face serious crimes, crises and financial issues.)

When I'm training a CEO or president, I like to encourage them to think about their executive image.  How do they want to be seen?  By that I mean not in this moment, but across all the moments of their leadership, taken together?  In that context, it becomes clearer how the quick, flip retort "I'd like my life back" isn't worth what would very likely come next.  How does your CEO want to be remembered when his legacy's being retold?  Today's handling of a rumor, crisis or plain old mundane opportunity (like inviting alumni to a reunion) can burnish that image.

Some of the qualities I encourage CEOs to strive for in shaping their executive image are:
  • Non-anxious; relaxed without looking uncaring
  • Able to listen and recap what others are saying with empathy
  • Thoughtful
  • Appreciative of customers and employees at all times, including their questions and complaints
  • Energetic
  • Able to poke gentle fun at oneself, and able to resist making jokes at others' expense
  • Calm, rather than angry
You'll have others on your list--and those on your CEO's list may surprise you.  So if you haven't had that level of conversation with your CEO, you should; both of you should know what you're aiming for, so you can evaluate each public opportunity in that context. Many of my clients hire me to facilitate that discussion if it's not a comfortable one for them--but either way, thinking through those desired qualities and the situations that might push your CEO away from them is essential to taking the long view on her executive image. 

Related post:  Get past 6 CEO barriers to social media

Employee vs. employer blogs: Which is better?

Check out don't get caught on Facebook, where I'm floating ideas and discussing them before they appear on the blog.  It's shaping up as a great networking community for communicators.

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