We all are coming to recognize that the communications environment has become a gigantic town square to which everyone is invited. We understand that our investors, our employees, our vendors, our regulators, our customers, and folks we want as customers are able to read, see or hear every word we use.
That makes everyone a potential champion or critic. It speaks to the necessity to develop and respect core messaging that CEOs and their supporters can adapt for each audience. Consistency in this environment becomes a mainstay of our authenticity.
Yet, many of us still regard the town square as something out of the Wild West: There’s some semblance of law and order, but there’s no guarantee that everyone will abide by the rules in a virtual place in which it’s so easy to be anonymous and unaccountable. Everyone is packing a six-shooter, and anyone can inflict damage in a nanosecond. We can diminish such threats, but the first challenge is to avoid self-inflicted wounds!
To be sure, the element of ambush is always present, and that feeds this belief that companies and executives have no control over events. But the loss of control is often overstated. Just as in life or for private individuals, companies and executives have control over their own actions. Nothing speaks more loudly and effectively than the behavior we elect to exhibit or the course we decide to take. We make these kinds of choices every day. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” At FleishmanHillard, we say, “Be as you wish to be seen.”
There are other choices that the connected CEO can make — and some are made far too casually.
One of the biggest questions each leader must tackle is whether they want to reveal fundamental personal beliefs rather than stick to business orthodoxy. Do they want to weigh in on political, religious or cultural questions in an effort to insinuate themselves into current debate?
Clearly, many societies around the world thrive on freedom of expression. But this is not a constitutional issue that confronts CEOs; it’s a strategic one. Generally speaking, such expressions of personal conviction add elements of risk to the communications ecosystem. Unless an issue is somehow central to the basic business or even the company’s role in society, my advice is to avoid the temptation. Besides compromising their own personal privacy, executives who publicize their personal beliefs on non-business issues risk becoming a divisive element within their own enterprises.
CEOs also must be able to acknowledge when they are wrong or change their mind, and they can’t let their ego interfere with their ability to discuss it openly and honestly. More often than not, such admissions build credibility rather than erode it.
Another factor under our control, yet treated far too cavalierly, is word choice. Those at the top should recognize that a whisper from them becomes a roar at the bottom of the organization. And this is where they must demonstrate the most control. The words of the boss are enormously powerful, so they also must be enormously clear.
At the end of the day, the social presence of executives should open up their companies to the outside in a way that is consistent with what each company stands for and in a way that helps each company realize its potential.
Some fall victim to well-intentioned efforts that are simply wrong-headed. For example, we live in a culture of celebrity, and it seems those seeking attention sometimes forget to make a distinction between being famous and infamous. There is in fact such a thing as bad publicity — even if they spell your name right, and that’s another temptation to avoid. Unfortunately, there are still communicators out there who trade in both sides of the celebrity coin.
A corollary of that mentality — one that is becoming far more popular — is making a spectacle out of something and mistaking that for building a brand or a reputation. We shouldn’t confuse attention for approval or popularity for influence. Yet, the pressure for achieving superficial measures of success has been driving a lot of bad behaviors, inspired by equally bad advice.
The point is that CEOs and other executives have great power in their social presence as a reflection of their true selves and as a reflection of their true organizations. Getting in touch with the essence of our own authentic selves is the first step toward an effective profile in the proverbial town square.