As a Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes Away from CEOs, One More Open Letter: to Their Communication Folks
This isn’t just your best opportunity to help your CEO do what needs to be done, it’s actually your first — and probably, your last.
Dear Executive Communication Professional:
You might be tempted to throw up your hands at this point. (But you won’t.)
The Edelman Trust Barometer this week reported that CEOs are losing credibility in relation to leaders of other institutions during coronavirus — ranking dead last, behind academics and scientists, national government leaders, global health authorities, local government leaders and journalists.
Only 29% of respondents believe business leaders are doing an “outstanding” job of handling the crisis, while government leaders and scientists garnered nearly 50% approval in that category.
You and your exec comms colleagues give your heart’s blood to helping CEOs communicate. You fight HR goons and lawyers and the CEOs themselves to urge candor, emotional humanity and intellectual honesty in leadership communication.
You’ve been working harder during the two months than you ever worked in your career — amid plenty of troubles of your own — to help your client rise to this most crucial occasion.
And CEOs are at 29%?
One corporate executive communication director suggested that maybe Edelman’s finding, as Twain once said of Wagner’s music, isn’t as bad as it sounds. “People hate Congress, but love their congress(wo)man,” he said. “Would be interesting to know if anything similar was happening with the lack of trust in CEOs that Edelman found.” That’s a good point, that Edelman would do well to pursue.
But really, wouldn’t it be more surprising, in the middle of a global economic catastrophe, if CEOs making tens of millions were liked and trusted by people making tens of thousands and terrified of being laid off or forced to work in unsafe conditions — whatever those CEOs were saying or doing?
It falls to executive communication folks to make these multimillionaires and billionaires as sympatico with their employees and customers as possible — a job that’s always been difficult. My adman dad used to tell how Harvey Firestone in the 1960s refused a hard-negotiated Sunday afternoon network slot for the flagging “Voice of Firestone” variety TV show by angrily bellowing that no one would watch it. “I know what people are doing on Sunday afternoons! They’re not watching television, they’re playing polo!”
But not all CEOs were so economically or emotionally removed. In employee publications up into the 1990s I read many stories of CEOs who remembered everyone’s name, right down to the boys in the mailroom. Hewlett-Packard founder Dave Packard stood before the company’s top managers in 1958 and lectured them about how important it was to “develop genuine interest in people.” Why? Because you can’t lead people “unless you have a sincere desire to like, respect and be helpful to others. Conversely, you cannot build genuine interest in people until you have experienced the pleasure of working with them in an atmosphere characterized by mutual liking and respect.”
Occasionally you hear a CEO sound that way these days. This week, in fact, Airbnb founder and CEO Brian Chesky earned great praise for a layoff letter to employees that sounded less corporate and more human: “I have a deep feeling of love for all of you. … To those of you staying, one of the most important ways we can honor those who are leaving is for them to know that their contributions mattered, and that they will always be part of Airbnb’s story. I am confident their work will live on, just like this mission will live on. To those leaving Airbnb, I am truly sorry. Please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb … that helped make Airbnb. I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing them with us.”
Chesky’s letter got so much attention because so few CEOs can bring themselves to write or speak in such homely, humanistic terms, even in the most unbelievably trying times
I actually think it’s out of a kind of integrity that CEOs don’t try to speak to regular folks as if they are regular folks themselves. They know they’ve been making too much money for too long and separated themselves too completely from everyday people to talk with credible empathy about feelings — and especially about fear — with a straight face.
But there is one way a CEO can begin to close the gap, and that’s by showing up, and grinding it out, every day — in the way New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has. Widely regarded as arrogant and unlikable before this crisis — by the public, and by a surprising number of his former intimates who I’ve talked to recently — the man is almost universally appreciated for his attendance record, his willingness to study and recite plain, boring facts and the rhetorical discipline he shows in the ways he interprets them.
Near the outset of this crisis — March 17 — I wrote “an open letter to American CEOs,” telling them, “a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” I advised CEOs to communicate via video every day, answering every question they and their staff can gather from employees and customers. And I promised them that the practice would help them lose their communication inhibitions and start getting real with people.
I’ve studied CEO communication every day since then for the enewsletter Executive Communication Report: Coronavirus. The closer CEOs have come to following my simple and not-particularly-insightful advice, the better they have done. Oh, you think your organization is too big to do that? I’m acquainted with an exec comms chief whose CEO runs a virtual town hall meeting with all 135,000 employees every single day.
As the economy trembles on the edge of reopening, it’s not too late for CEOs to step up to this daily work of candor, detail and repetition that has characterized the best government communicators over the last two months.
Stuck in the same home office every day, answering unanswerable questions from employees every day, sharing acquired knowledge or insight every day, bringing in an insightful guest occasionally — it gives a CEO a rare chance to show how hard-working, committed and consistent he or she really is, until people in the organization start to say, “Goddamn, you gotta give the chief credit. She shows up every day and faces the music.”
It’s not too late to start. There are lots and lots of days to go — and as companies begin to resume operations, dynamic days, indeed. With triumphs and reversals, green shoots and dark moments as the organization traverses various circles of this coronavirus hell for the next couple of years at least.
“Business has been drafting for the past three months as government has led the first leg of this race,” Richard Edelman concluded his report. “Now it’s time for business to sprint to the front of the pack as the focus shifts to reopening the economy. This is a moment of reckoning for business and the promise of a stakeholder approach must now be delivered.”
I hope all executive communication professionals will send the Edelman report to their CEOs.
And then politely start a discussion CEO about what the chief is willing to do in terms of communication, and how long he or she is willing to do it. But it has to be consistent and it has to be real.
It’s quite possible your CEO isn’t up for this in the way Andrew Cuomo is, in the way New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is — or in the way Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca or G.E. CEO Jack Welch once were.
But I think you should make your case, and Richard Edelman agrees. I was on a private Zoom this week with him and a number of big-company CEOs, not all of whom seemed like they were quite up for this. (I actually felt sorry for one Fortune 500 boss who, asked about leadership lessons from coronavirus, recited some stuff about brains, heart and courage from The Wizard of Oz.)
Speaking to communicators directly, Edelman said, “This is the moment for all of you to be front and center with your CEOs. … There’s never been more important time for communications, for communicators, for all of us who are in the business of ideas and purpose.”
And in your career, there will likely never be a time like this again.
David Murray is executive director of the Executive Communication Council and the Professional Speechwriters Association, which publish Executive Communication Report: Coronavirus, a daily newsletter for those helping leaders communicate through the crisis.