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Internal Comms: How should CEOs communicate internally?

Ian Morris looks at the role of the CEO in internal communications and how internal comms professionals can make better use of their CEO

As the most senior leader in their organisations, the CEO plays a unique role in the organisation’s internal communications strategy.

Ultimately it is the CEO’s responsibility to establish a collective vision, purpose, culture and strategy. Their leadership directly influences how employees feel about the organisation they work for, and how motivated and inspired they are to pull together and perform at their best.

For the CEO to do this effectively, they must be effective communicators within their own business as well as externally. Enabling the CEO to share their knowledge about why your company exists, what it is trying to achieve, and how it intends to achieve that, to get employees all pulling in the same direction is a powerful thing.

Here are six key points for those looking to create an effective CEO internal communications strategy.

1. Build the case for it

If you want your CEO to commit to internal comms, you have to make sure they understand its importance. Fortunately, whereas previously many CEOs prioritised external comms over internal, the value of the latter is becoming an easier sell since the pandemic.

“I’ve observed a shift post-Covid in . . . how CEOs view the importance of the role of internal communications,” explained Michala Griffin, Director of Internal Communications at Novia Financial Plc.

Despite this shift, internal comms professionals might still have to make their case. To do this, they must understand the CEO’s objectives and the challenges they want to overcome, and demonstrate how internal comms can help address these.

By endeavouring to speak the CEO’s language and show the difference internal comms can make to key business metrics like employee engagement, productivity and retention, they’ll be more likely to see the value in it, make it a higher priority and generate better results.

2. Build their skills

The CEO is the storyteller-in-chief of their organisation. They need to be able to inspire, educate and influence internally as well as externally. While this skillset comes naturally to some, and is acquired during the career of others, not all CEOs feel comfortable on the big stage and may need a helping hand.

Coaching can be a great way to help CEOs and other executives become more skilled and confident presenters. From helping them understand the art of storytelling to learning public performance techniques, increasing a CEO’s mastery and confidence as a communicator is relatively easy to do, if they are committed to it.

Building up their capability can also broaden the channels they are comfortable using, enabling a more varied internal comms programme.

3. Make it easy for them

CEOs are time-poor and juggle a lot of business-critical priorities every day, so they appreciate working with people who can get things done, and communicate what is expected of them with precision and clarity.

They will bring their presence, experience and knowledge to the table, but internal comms professionals will need to bring project management skills, technical skills and communications guidance.

If you can equip them with the tools they need to make their job as painless as possible, you’ll get greater buy-in. This extends to guidance. Internal comms professionals should be able to help the CEO understand what employees are thinking and feeling, guiding them to ensure he or she is communicating with them in a way that will resonate and be well-received.

4. Be visible, frequent, and regular

The cadence of the CEO’s internal communications programme will depend on the individual and the organisation, but as a point of principle, being visible on a regular basis is important to show staff they care, to build a connection and to increase trust.

It is useful to get the CEO into a regular routine that they expect, and that employees expect. That might be a town hall twice a year, quarterly videos around financial results or a regular monthly slot in a company newsletter, blog or publication, but the key is to have a regular schedule, that can of course be supplemented by more informal or irregular site visits, emails or contributions to enterprise social networks like Yammer or Workplace.

5. Identify what staff need to know…and repeat it

Messages delivered once are easily forgotten. The most effective ones are simple and repeatable. Work in conjunction with the CEO to figure out what the most important points are he or she wants colleagues to remember, and make sure those messages come across loudly and clearly, time and time again.

That doesn’t mean repeating exactly the same words in the same way. Part of the skill of the internal comms professional is helping to find stories, techniques and tactics that can make messages engaging and bring them to life.

One internal comms chief told me, “The CEO sets the agenda, but how clearly that agenda is explained to and understood by their people will ultimately decide the success of the company.”

6. Encourage feedback

Leaders increasingly understand that they must be transparent, genuine and empathetic, but doing this requires the ability to listen as well as speak.

Novia’s Michala Griffin observed that “talking is only one part; the CEO’s role is to also listen which is why we dedicate time to open Q&A in all our engagement.

“We have our Slido Q&A open for our CEO sessions so our people can ask and respond (anonymously if they choose) to questions. Their email address is accessible too and so our people can email directly if they don’t catch them to chat to in the office.”

The most effective leaders want feedback. One of the best I ever worked with came off-stage after nailing a 30-minute keynote speech with no notes and immediately wanted to know what he could have done better. In an internal comms programme, creating opportunities for feedback is vital for both the CEO and the employees.

This PRmoment Internal Comms Review is written by Ian Morris, director, communications, SEC Newgate UK.

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