How communicators can learn to speak ‘CEO’

It’s more essential than ever for communicators to become strategic advisors to corporate execs, but that means they must become fluent in subjects that matter to business leaders.

Learn how to speak 'CEO'

PR pros have aspirations beyond broadcasting press releases to their media lists.

Inherent in the debate about the true function of the in-house public relations pro is the question of PR’s value to leaders and other executives. Is PR good only for driving awareness? Not according to some communications leaders.

Proponents of the integrated communications model, wizards who blend the tactics of marketing and media relations with content creation and brand journalism, argue that communicators should be treated as strategic advisors. They want PR and communications to have a seat at the table with the CEO, CMO and other high-flying decision-makers—and that means communicators must become better businesspeople.

“It’s really important that communicators get outside of their comfort zone and explore the business side of their clients or their company,” says Larry Parnell, associate professor of strategic public relations at George Washington University, where he runs the master’s degree program. 

“Communicators must understand [their clients’ or leaders’] world and let them know how communications fits into that and helps them achieve their strategic objectives.”

Parnell warns that lacking a business background won’t excuse unpreparedness. “Put things into context for the person you are trying to engage, and that usually means understanding the fundamentals of business and the things that drive your company, and then adapting your communications strategies to dovetail with those,” he suggests.

He’s not alone in that thinking.

“The comms pros who have earned a seat at the table don’t just bring the mindset of a communications leader; they bring the mindset of a business leader,” says Joe Cohen, chief communications officer for Axis Capital and PR advocate. “They have a thorough understanding of the businesses that they represent and the company and their CEO’s strategic priorities. And they’re bottom-line driven: They’re focused on understanding how their function can best help advance their company’s business objectives.”

What holds PR pros back

What prevents communicators from assuming their rightful role as senior advisors to the CEO? Often, it’s a mindset that carries over from childhood: a fear of numbers.

“I run into this all the time in workshops with writers and communicators,” says Jim Ylisela, co-founder and managing partner of Ragan Consulting Group. “They hate numbers; they fear numbers.

“When I taught in the journalism program at Northwestern, we would do ‘How to write a budget story’—and they hated that. They said: ‘If I wanted to study numbers, I would have become an accountant.’” 

However, that sort of aversion stunts their career growth.

“CEOs, CFOs and CMOs tend to talk numbers,” says Cohen, “and having and keeping a seat at the table means that you need to be able to speak their language.” 

For Cohen, that demands a facility with numbers and the language of business. “This means that you need to understand the relevant financial jargon, business jargon, and be able to translate your own work into terms they can understand, so that they can also understand how your function is helping the company advance its objectives,” he says.

Ylisela offers comfort by way of a familiar function.

“Numbers and data, which are things that matter a lot to the C-suite, tell stories,” he says. “If you’re a communicator, you tell stories, and numbers are just another way of telling a story.

“I think that helps communicator to become more financially literate,” he adds. “They need to not just think, ‘Oh, my God, here is a spreadsheet with bunch of numbers in it,’ but what is the story it tells?”

Taking yourself to school

Should an aspiring communicator get an MBA? Parnell, who has an MBA, says the advanced degree isn’t worth the investment if you aren’t going to use it.

“Getting an MBA, if you are not interested in becoming a businessperson, is like getting a law degree if you don’t want to be a lawyer,” he says. “You’re going to find that you’re not going to see all of it applying to your everyday work.”

Instead, Parnell recommends using the resources available at your company to add to your knowledge base.

“If you go to the people that are experts, financial people, accounting people,” he says, “and ask them questions, intelligent questions where they can see you are trying to understand something, more often than not they are going to be very helpful, because they appreciate getting to talk about what they know.”

However, Parnell warns against irksome requests for information from busy finance teams.

“Never go in and sit down in someone’s office and say, ‘Teach me,’ which they will resent,” Parnell says. “If you go in and say, ‘I read this article in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times about economic factors impacting our industry and how companies are working on it. Talk to me a little bit about how that applies here.’ 

“If you come in with a question about an article or something you’ve seen or read or a report, they’ll sit there and talk to you. Like anybody else, they like to talk about what they do and what they believe they do well.”

What CEOs want

To become the right hand to your top executives, you have to know what those leaders are looking for, and that means becoming comfortable with measurement and data—and doing your homework ahead of time.

“In the past, CEOs were often looking to communications pros for tactical support such as speechwriting or media counsel,” says Cohen. “More often today, CEOs are looking for a business partner who can help them problem-solve.”

Ylisela advises adopting a translator role. He says communicators “become very good counselors to the C-suite because what they’re advising is, ‘What’s the story we want to tell here?’”

He advises PR pros to become masters at turning data into compelling stories for audiences. He suggests making your message to the CEO: “I can translate the data into ideas and emotion, which is the heart of all storytelling.”

Parnell warns that communicators must walk into the corner office with solutions, not problems.

“CEOs want you to come in with answers, number one,” he says. “Coming in and saying, ‘We have a problem,’ is not leadership. Don’t just bring problems; bring solutions or possible solutions.”

Walking in with a solution or two under your cap means doing your homework and learning what your company does and how it makes a profit. 

“You have to be ready to make intelligent recommendations,” Parnell says. “Don’t wait until they ask you for your opinion on sales in Latin America before you go and figure out, ‘What are our sales in Latin America? What products do we sell there?’”

An opportunity for CCOs

Many see this moment in history as a big opportunity for communicators. CEOs are being asked to speak out on social issues. Social media has created a ticking time bomb for many brands’ reputations. Legacy media outlets have struggled—creating the need for brand journalism and PR advocacy.

“Many CEOs are struggling with the expectation that they are going to take on and speak out on social issues,” says Parnell. “They really don’t know how to do that. That’s not their training; they are operations people, finance people, legal people.”

Savvy communicators can use this new business reality to secure their seat at a table—but they must be prepared. “Whether it’s an opportunity to step out on an issue like immigration, homelessness or gun control—or it is product safety in your industry,” says Parnell, “you have to come in with an understanding of the problem and a communications solution or contribute to the solution of that problem.”

Ylisela argues for using brand journalism to tell important stories about your organization—and making the most of the one asset you have exclusively: data.

“One of the areas where we [at Ragan Consulting Group] are really trying to push the news teams we are developing and working with at different companies has everything to do with data,” Ylisela says. “Most organizations are sitting on tons of data—data about their customers, data about their industry.

“One of the things we’ve been working on is how do you extract stories from that data? What trends can you spot? Because if you want to stand out in your storytelling, you have to look for stories that perhaps nobody else has, including The New York Times, and the reason they don’t have it is because nobody has access to that data.”

As a bonus, being able to tell stories about your organization’s proprietary data will make the CEO see you in a new, very flattering light.

“If you can analyze and interpret that data in an interesting way, then the C-suite looks at you a little differently,” Ylisela says.

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