Do you manage executive communications for your company? If so, sometimes you might feel like the quarterback, helping the team move down the field. Sometimes you might feel like the coach, setting the strategy and calling the plays.
A lot of times, you probably feel like the football.
Executive engagement is among the most important and, at times, frustrating aspects of corporate communications. Today, when every company is trying to get ideas and messages into the marketplace quickly, executive spokespeople must play a huge role. At most companies, however, executive communications is surprisingly limited in its impact. In fact, it’s hard to think of another area of communications where companies leave more on the table.
What holds executive spokespeople – and the communications people who support them – back?
1. They don’t put themselves into the story
I’ve seen executives communicate memorably and effectively on stage, in writing, and in person. I’ve seen them act as powerful advocates for their companies, sharing their vision and persuading their audience of the value of their ideas.
I’ve seen that. You probably have, too. What I see more often, however, is executives taking a neutral, careful approach to their story and delivery. I see tamped-down, sanitized, muted communications delivered without passion or power. I see no highs or lows. I see no color, just a lot of shades of gray.
Executive communication is different from everything else your company puts out in one important way… It goes through a person. The message can’t be separated from the messenger. The ideas they are talking about need to seem like their own. Do they believe it? Do they care? Can they make us care? They can’t stand up there and try to be the human equivalent of a press release.
Sometimes the lifeless, flat quality that many executive leaders bring to their communications is easily explained. They are communicating someone else’s ideas and words, which is extremely difficult to do with any degree of credibility. (There is a word for people who do that for a living: “actors.”) Often, though, that impersonal aspect is the result of something that comes from within the executives themselves. Many are simply very conservative about their public communication. They have learned to present themselves in a very neutral way and are reluctant to change.
I hear this a lot from executives:
- “I don’t want to make this about me.”
- “I don’t want to come off as flashy.”
- “That’s how everyone does it here.”
There are many personality types among business leaders, ranging from complete introverts to raging extroverts. A few are amazing natural communicators, who are willing to put their personal stamp on their message, but many need help putting themselves into their own communications.
2. They don’t organize as a team
When done right, executive communications should be a team sport. It involves the contributions of a lot of individuals – executives, their immediate teams, and usually a small army of supporting communications staff. Their efforts should be linked and aligned, with everyone working together towards a larger message and goal. It should feel like a connected system, tightly connected to the needs of the business, and managed to clear long-term objectives.
That’s the ideal. The reality of executive communications at most companies, even the ones that are advanced in their use of spokespeople, falls far below that standard. Often there is no single person who is responsible for the executive communications function across the company. Very often, there is no long-term plan in place for what each executive will say and do as a spokesperson.
Organizing executives and their communications support people for collective action is hard. They are almost always split into various business units, carrying various agendas and priorities. Driving any sort of cross-company, integrated executive communications system requires a lot of patience, tact, and delicate diplomacy. It’s a bit like herding cats, only some of the cats have the ability to fire you. Exciting!
Remember, you are talking about the most senior people in the company. The overwhelming temptation will always be to let each of them make their own decisions regarding the focus and frequency of their communication. I see many executive communications teams that give up on the notion of orchestrating their executive engagement to some master plan. They end up focusing on the traditional Golden Rules of Executive Communication:
- Get through the next event.
- Keep the executives happy.
If this is how you define success in executive communications, the job becomes a lot easier. The problem is that if you keep things at this extremely basic level, you end up with executives speaking at cross-purposes, missing or even contradicting each other.
3. They don’t improve
If you don’t organize and manage your executive engagement as a system, then you can’t improve and scale it as a system. Individuals can get better – executives can become more comfortable and effective, and members of your communications team can grow in their jobs – but you can’t easily capture and sustain gains across your entire communications organization.
I’m constantly seeing communications teams that struggle to share content and best practices. Someone might have discovered a great new way to structure an all-hands employee meeting, but that knowledge will stay trapped in one part of the team. Someone else might have developed a great customer-facing presentation, but no one outside of a small group will know about it.
If your “executive communications team” is really a loose, cross-functional alignment of spokespeople and support staff, the bottom line is that they will develop and scale in their own way. You will have limited ability to shape and direct the team. And since there is no clear common definition of success, and usually very few tracked metrics, you can’t easily measure progress.
Success and growth is not an accident. If you want your executive spokesperson team to become more effective over time, it requires conscious focus and collective will. That desire to improve together is simply not there at most companies.
The best executive spokesperson teams are just that: teams. They think and act collectively, recognizing that they can be much more effective if they engage together. At the same time, they each tell their own story in their own way. To get that balance right, and to create a strong team around the leaders to help them shine, requires strong leadership and a commitment to building up the executive communications function.