When Forbes presented its latest annual list of the world´s 10 most powerful CEOs in December 2016, it was a who is who of charismatic, well-known global influencers. On top was Larry Page, the CEO of Alphabet, Google´s parent company. Page is the billionaire co-founder and chief executive of the internet giant. And he is the public face of a conglomerate that spans from artificial intelligence to healthcare. Page uses his personal fortune to push ambitious projects like flying-car startups. Second on the list was Elon Musk who is redefining transportation and wants to colonize Mars.
Thought leader, motivator, communicator
Thanks to an artfully crafted media presence these CEOs are perceived in the wider public as much more than just experts in their narrow fields. They are thought leaders and change managers in vibrant industries, great motivators and communicators to their employees and exceptionally gifted strategists with a daring vision who are constantly pushing boundaries. In a perfect world the CEO embodies the company´s values and personifies the brand.
Celebrity counterparts in Germany are CEOs like Daimler boss Dieter Zetsche who´s media appearances are perfectly staged in order to present him as a cool and casual top manager who leaves his ties at home, wears white cowboy hats and can even be seen in ostrich leather boots. Zetsche is presented as a force to be reckoned with in connected mobility, blessed with a startup mentality and well on his way leading the car manufacturer into a successful digital future. In a nutshell: A hell of a chap!
CEO positioning now a top corporate priority
If this all sounds like theatre, it is certainly not. Positioning Chief Executive Officers in the public sphere and managing their communication activities has become a top corporate priority, according to a 2016 study by scientists from the universities of Leipzig and the Norwegian Business School in Oslo, published in the Journal of Communication Management. The paper certifies a “rise in the mediatisation of society and organisations.” It discerns that the public is “taking increasing interest in the activities of corporations.” According to the paper, “CEOs personify and represent their organizations through their visibility in media. In this way their leadership influences perceptions of the organization among stakeholders, and thereby organizational reputation and performance.” According to various studies on CEO positioning, a CEO can shape the public image of his or her company to more than 50 percent.
The CEO as a visionary
But what can external communication, marketing and PR staff do in order to sustainably present your CEO as the visionary voice and face of your company and not let him fall behind to become a media wallflower? According to the “2016 CEO Communication Monitor” 74 percent of news articles in German publications on CEOs are covering the 30 chief executives of the listed DAX companies. But less than one out of 100 reports deals with the CEOs of public companies ranked 70 to 79 in the list of leading German companies. These are top executives who lead thousands of employees and who move billions of Euros. And still they are practically almost non-existent to the public. Here is a warning to communication directors in every company to design a long-term, sustainable strategy for CEO positioning. If you don´t position your CEO, he will only be interesting to printed, broadcasted and social media when there is an emergency or an outright crisis.
The study conducted in Leipzig and Oslo offers a revealing finding: “The majority of companies position their CEOs and other top executives, but only a minority guides these activities through a sound management process.” The question is: How exactly does a sound management process look like in this regard?
A good starting point is certainly a detailed understanding of the company´s strategy as well as its diverse internal and external stakeholders. Their different expectations and information needs should be thoroughly identified. Without this important first step it is impossible to align the CEO positioning with the overall strategy and to achieve a compliance with your stakeholders´ expectations. This is why the second step in a sound management process is analyzing the CEOs past and current image and role. Only if there is clarity about it, you will be sure from where to start your positioning.
Before you begin with the actual positioning it is essential to define strategic and opportunity topics that match the individual strengths of the CEO. Again, make sure these topics support the strategic message of the company. Once the strategic CEO positioning is developed it needs to be translated into a systematic action plan. Part of the positioning plan is a stakeholder-specific messaging and consistent activity roadmap. But being active and organized is not enough. The CEOs communication activities need to be monitored and analyzed for messaging, reputation and impression. The CEO needs to come across as authentic. If the audience discerns his or her appearances as staged, all efforts will be in vain. This is why there needs to be a radical selection regarding topics, appearances and interviews. Always remember the CEOs dual mandate: Of course, he or she needs to earn profits. But the CEO also needs to be a good citizen and provide social benefits.
The best way to achieve this is a regular media presence that shows an accessible, well informed and communicative thought leader. Part of this strategy is to connect with thought leaders in your field, for example via retweets and discussion forums. Another part is to secure editorial space in trade journals and speaking engagements.
And don´t forget: According to “Activism 2017: High Noon in the C-Suite” almost half of all millennials expect CEOs to speak up about matters that are important to society. And half of this increasingly important age bracket welcomes CEO activism. They claim, it positively influences their purchase decisions.
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