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When I first moved to the “dark side” — an ominous phrase used by my journalism peers to describe transitioning into public relations — the media landscape was different.
At the time, the only way to reach a mass audience was to get your news picked up by one of the handful of media outlets that had a monopoly on reaching the mainstream public.
As such, CEO communication was standardly delivered through spokespeople — a PR pro would craft a message on behalf of the CEO, then distribute it to the appropriate editors and producers. Removed from the complex world of optics, a CEO’s reputation was neatly wall-gardened by this process.
Those days are gone. Widespread adoption of social media has given every employee, customer and investor a virtual window into the operations of the businesses that interest them and the lives of the executives who run them.
Recent research shows 82% of employees expect business leaders to use social media to communicate about their company’s mission, vision and values — and by a ratio of four to one, prefer to work for a CEO who uses social media compared to one who does not.
Just as the landscape has shifted, so has the role of the CEO. No longer can a company’s top executive be expected to operate without active participation in company communication. Yet, many leaders, particularly those in legacy industries like finance and law, haven’t adapted to modern expectations. The recent Silicon Valley Bank collapse was a shining example of how not investing in an executive communication strategy can literally kill a company.
Build an online presence
Privately held or not, we’ve entered the era of building companies in public. Every person your CEO interacts with has an opinion and a social media channel to share it on. As such, building an online presence for your CEO isn’t a vanity project — it’s reputation management.
When leaders aren’t intentional about creating an online thumbprint, the narrative around who they are and what they stand for is left to Google’s evolving algorithm. In the absence of an executive content strategy, a negative tweet, poor customer review or inaccurate press quote may be the first impression your CEO is making online when stakeholders do an online search.
Platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter impact search rankings and if properly leveraged, can build virtual communities that result in real-life business opportunities. But don’t pawn your CEO’s social media presence off to an inexperienced employee. Building a personal brand for your CEO involves tapping into their personality and lived experience to create content that aligns with the strategic objectives of the company and speaks to the needs of the audience they are targeting — a complex process that requires support from a seasoned executive communications consultant who can also caution against communication that could lead to an issue or crisis.
Considering four out of five investors use digital media to make an investment decision, having a strong online profile for your CEO can not only improve optics, but it can also help land funding, sales and strategic partnerships.
Empathize with the needs of stakeholders
In recent months, we’ve seen several CEOs go viral for the wrong reasons. Andi Owens, the CEO of MillerKnoll, an American furniture company, became web-famous when a video of her unsympathetically addressing her employees’ concerns was uploaded to social media.
In the video, Owens, who made $5M in 2022, lectured employees — the average of whom made $44K — to focus on sales over personal compensation. Owens made a sin many CEOs and company leaders make on a regular basis: She failed to empathize with the needs of her stakeholders.
Before a CEO puts out any form of sensitive communication, it’s important to anticipate the questions the audience might have and gauge sentiment around the topic. Often this can be done by distributing an anonymous survey in advance to solicit candid feedback from the target group on the topic and how it affects them. When you’re not attuned to the needs of your stakeholders, you’re less likely to respond with the information that’s most important to them — or worse, offend them or raise concerns. This can cause irreparable damage to your business.
One of the best ways to stay in tune with your stakeholders’ needs on an ongoing basis is to create pathways for two-way communication. In the digital age, social media can be one of the most efficient tools for monitoring public sentiment and staying engaged with your stakeholders.
Don’t be afraid to build in public
In working with CEOs for nearly two decades, I’ve noticed one common hesitation when it comes to speaking publicly on a trending topic: “My company hasn’t perfected that, yet.”
While having mastered a solution to a widespread challenge is nice to have, it’s not necessary to have a point of view on it. Building in public — the idea of openly sharing challenges, learnings and personal reflections as they occur — can be an effective way to humanize a company leader and build a community around their online profile.
Building in public doesn’t mean you have to operate with radical transparency, but you do have to be willing to test out ideas and solicit stakeholder feedback publicly. Sharing an op-ed, newsletter or thoughtful LinkedIn update gives a CEO a high level of control over their narrative, and if done strategically and consistently, can be an effective way to establish their purpose and intention.
Building a personal brand isn’t a traditional part of being a CEO, but in the age of algorithms and viral videos, it is becoming a prerequisite.
The good news is, company leaders don’t have to be charismatic or even comfortable with public speaking to build a public profile, they just need to be intentional and strategic about their online reputation. By investing in an executive communications strategy, CEOs are better positioned to protect their reputations and those of their companies, through the ups and downs of business.