Straight Talk: An IABC Research Foundation Study Asked 20 CEOs about Communication. Their Answers Reveal Changes That Have Implications for Both Executives and Communication Professionals

By Gibson, Barbara | Communication World, May-June 2012 | Go to article overview

Straight Talk: An IABC Research Foundation Study Asked 20 CEOs about Communication. Their Answers Reveal Changes That Have Implications for Both Executives and Communication Professionals


Gibson, Barbara, Communication World


Ah, the good old days. Back when business communication meant pushing out well-edited information to two audiences: external and internal. To reach the external audiences, you sent a press release--typed, copied, stuffed into envelopes and mailed to a list of journalists you knew by name and maybe even had lunch with regularly. For internal audiences, a monthly newsletter--which took weeks to produce--was the top channel. The CEO was quoted in both, but it was rare for him to write any of his own quotes. If he wasn't a great communicator, it didn't matter--that wasn't critical to his job. The company had communication professionals to craft the CEO's words, write his speeches, serve as his spokesperson and help him rehearse for the occasional live appearance. News cycles were longer, and the expectations of journalists, employees, investors and the general public were different.

Fast-forward to today. The ways in which the picture has changed are too numerous to mention. Some of the changes happened so gradually we didn't notice (when did you last mail a press release?). Others, like growing globalization, the rapid rise of social media and difficult economic times, have undoubtedly had profound impacts on business communication, and particularly on the role of the CEO as communicator. So [ABC decided it was time to go directly to CEOs to find out what they think, how they view the communication function and what they need from their communication teams to be successful in today's business environment.

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The IABC Research Foundation study, Conversations with CEOs, included in-depth telephone interviews with senior executives from large companies around the world, and the findings have implications for CEOs and for corporate communication professionals. The full results are available in the Research Foundation report A View from the Top: Corporate Communication from the Perspective of Senior Executives. Here, I highlight just a few of the findings and discuss some important issues to consider and explore further.

Communication is now a required leadership competency

The CEOs interviewed for the study (see page 22 for the list of participants) identified communication as one of their biggest challenges and demonstrated a keen understanding that their own role includes that of chief communicator. They know that their success depends on their ability to communicate with all their audiences.

As William Swanson of Raytheon put it: "My responsibility is to be able to communicate at every level. If I can't go on the factory floor and have a one-on-one conversation on what they're doing, I'm toast.... And I have to be able to communicate with the engineers. I have to be able to communicate with finance, and contracts, and HR. For our customers, I have to be able to communicate an understanding of our products and services. I also have to describe what we do to nontechnical people--for example, boiling it down for investors as to why they should invest in the company. So the point of it is that I've got to be comfortable from the floor, to the investor, to the customer."

The study also reveals an awareness that CEO communication can't be one-way, that listening is part of the role. "lit is my] responsibility to make sure that all the stakeholders feel that they are listened to and that they understand the key messages," said Mark Price, managing director of the U.K. supermarket giant Waitrose.

While the CEOs interviewed recognize the importance of these competencies, the research did not measure communication skills or ask whether they felt confident in their own abilities to communicate effectively.

My own research several years ago into spokesperson competency found that many CEOs weren't fully effective in this area. I also found that most communication professionals lacked any training in providing feedback and coaching to help them improve, and tended to rely on outside trainers instead of taking responsibility for the ongoing development of their boss's communication skills. …

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