It goes without saying that the world of work has changed. Remote work is in, and the days of the invisible C-suite are out. And with new data revealing that the majority of people expect CEOs to be the face of change at a company, strong executive communications are a must.
Communications professionals are increasingly involved with managing brand and corporate identity. Executive communications can benefit both of these elements, your comms strategy as a whole and can even boost employee morale and company visibility.
Let’s get into the question of, “What is executive communication?” and how to get started.
What is executive communication?
Executive communications are any communication (face-to-face, written, virtual, etc.) that come from the members of a company’s C-suite or leadership team—not just the CEO.
Internally, this can look like emails, coffee talks, town halls and Slack chats with employees. Externally this can be through social media, media appearances, investor calls and more.
Why should you have an executive communications strategy?
Executive communications can also shape how audiences perceive, trust and interact with your company. The NAACP’s social and PR teams work together with their CEO to create “Tweetments” that serve as official public statements and strengthen relationships with journalists. And after a crisis at Virgin Galactic, it was CEO Richard Branson’s immediate, empathetic response that helped the brand save face.
It’s never been more important for brands and leadership to be transparent. According to Sprout Social’s #BrandsGetReal report, 32% of consumers say CEO transparency on social would inspire them to buy from that business. And 63% of people say CEOs who have their own social profiles are better representatives for their companies than ones who don’t.
From boosting brand awareness and PR efforts, to aiding in perception and transparency, executive communications are a powerful tool in your communications strategy toolbelt. As HubSpot’s Director of Executive Communications Hannah Fleishman puts it, “The reality is, an executive’s platform is one of the most powerful recruiting, marketing and sales tools a company has.”
An executive communications strategy exists to remove blockers, provide structure and safeguards and empowers executives to keep up a regular presence.
Looking for some must-follow B2B startup CEOs.
I’m talking “change the world” kinda companies.
— Jason Bradwell 👋 (@JasonRBradwell) April 18, 2022
How to build an executive communications plan
Most executives are no strangers to leading strategy conversations, poring over financial projections or weighing in on R&D.
But elevating their communication strategy may not come as naturally.
Developing a clear plan that clearly illustrates your executives’ role, time commitment, goals and return is the first step to securing buy-in. Here are some tips to help you craft a strategy.
Define the “why” behind executive communications
“Time is a limited resource for executives,” Hannah told Sprout. “So communications—especially external comms like thought leadership or speaking gigs—can be a tough sell. What’s important is to clearly articulate the ‘why’ behind it.”
Not all executives will care about building a personal brand on Twitter. They will care about benefits to the business’ bottom line.
“Leadership content is an underestimated strategy for attracting talent,” Hannah tells us. “Especially during the Great Resignation, it’s critical to make it clear how executive communications can expand an organization’s reach to attract more talent, prospects and customers.”
What specific benefits can your company gain from an executive communications strategy? Clearly define these benefits, and provide examples of brands with strong executive thought leadership.
Set goals and a timeline
Are you creating this strategy to increase executive social media presence? Improve brand health? Build trust? Many of your goals will link back to your “whys.”
If you need help identifying goals, go straight to the source. Internally, consider an anonymous survey for employees. What do they want to hear from leadership? Do they prefer email communication, or in-person coffee talks? What’s their current perception?
For external comms, think about where you want to increase leadership presence. Setting goals around media placements or brand awareness is a great place to start.
Finally, consider your leaders’ own goals. As Hannah tells us, “Start by having an open conversation with your leadership team about their communications goals—both personally and professionally. Aligning upfront on the aspirations and guardrails will save you time in the long run.”
Once you’ve identified goals, develop a realistic timeline for your strategy. Consider all of the pieces needed—how hands-on will your executives be? How often will content need to be created and approved? Who else will be involved?
Provide executive communication training
Once you have buy-in, how can you help leaders succeed?
Provide regular training—from corporate communications writing, to media training for on-screen appearances. This can be as simple as in-house thought leadership workshops to help you and your executives identify and refine ideas and topics they may want to speak to.
These aren’t one-and-done—make training a core, recurring part of your strategy. This will help your leaders—and you—feel more comfortable and communicate more authentically. And this can feed your efforts. In a recent webinar hosted by the National Retail Federation and Sprout, Walmart reported that training helped grow their executive audience reach by 182%.
Keep in mind, you can do everything right and still get negative comments. In addition to training, show leadership your strategy’s safeguards—from social monitoring to providing media talking points. Set expectations, especially when your executives take a firm public stance. And clearly lay out the system you have in place in case you do receive backlash.
You can even emphasize that having this strategy in place will streamline the process if your CEO ever does need to respond or speak amid a crisis.
Make content easy
The easier you can make the content sharing process, the better.
“Don’t just meet them in the middle on drafting or brainstorming, meet them at 80% and give them something to react to,” Hannah tells Sprout. “Time is an exec’s most valuable resource, so if they’re investing it in comms, you need to maximize the ROI.”
Start with some quick wins to secure buy-in. As Hannah suggested, “Identify some easy ways for them to be more active, either on external channels like LinkedIn or Twitter, or internally on Slack or email.”
Using these as a way to test your strategy while demonstrating ROI can help get executives—and you—more comfortable.
— Mary Barra (@mtbarra) April 15, 2022
Knowing your executives’ voice and interests is crucial, whether you’re ghostwriting or sourcing content for them. Consider creating Twitter lists of industry executives and relevant news outlets you can refer to.
And look for content opportunities everywhere. As Hannah puts it, “Executives are incredibly busy, so when their insights live in a vacuum, you’ve missed an opportunity. We should always be thinking about how we might be able to leverage an internal talk for an external piece of content, or turn a blog post into social content.”
What existing content do you have that you can share? If you have an employee advocacy tool, this could be a great place to start.
Pro tip: Try creating a content calendar to plan ahead with your leaders. Identifying key dates for upcoming events, milestones, articles and more provides preparation time—even if that’s as simple as reminding them to snap a behind the scenes photo.
It's #WomensHistoryMonth and what better way to spend it than with #WomeninSTEM! I enjoyed celebrating with scientists and engineers at the @smithsonian for the #IfThenSheCanExhibit statue unveiling. (1/3) pic.twitter.com/6C9vTdcYzh
— Bridget Coughlin PhD (@SheddAquaCEO) March 4, 2022
Map responsibilities and build approval processes
Executive communications can involve social media, video content, copy and more. So you’ll likely need to involve stakeholders from other teams.
Your process should be as streamlined and forward-thinking as possible—especially when you’re tapping other employees’ time. Building specific approval processes sets expectations to allow for review time and prep.
If executives want to write their own content, an approval process gives you room to edit messages and ensure executives appropriately represent themselves and the brand.
If someone is ghostwriting, a clear review process allows executives to iterate and green-light messaging for authenticity.
Show the impact of your strategy
Deep breath in, deep breath out.
You’ve mapped out a clear strategy. Now continue to prove the impact of your efforts by reporting on returns.
Data doesn’t lie. Regularly report quantitative results to your executives in a way that tells a story.
And put mechanisms in place to gather qualitative data. Capturing employee feedback, shareholder feedback and more to share with leadership can show the human side of their communications.
A social listening tool like Sprout’s can measure sentiment and show how people feel about your executives’ channels, what they’re saying and more.
Create your executive communications strategy
You’re ready to use these tips to start crafting your executive communications strategy.
Remember—nothing is set in stone. Leave room for adjustments where they’re needed.
Schedule time on your calendar to meet regularly with your executives to evaluate your strategy. What’s going well? What needs to change moving forward?
Ease and simplicity are key here—for your leaders, but also for you. Watch our webinar with the NRF and Walmart to learn more about building a smart executive communications plan.
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