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Why CEOs need a comms professional at their side before making big decisions

Credit: Gabriel de la Rosa Cols, principal at agency Intelligent Relations

https://intelligentrelations.c...Contrary to popular belief, not all publicity is good publicity. We’ve recently seen how PR crises can send a company into complete disarray, including recent disasters at UK energy companies and Balenciaga - the past year, in particular, witnessed significant public relations failures, indicating the need for a more strategic approach to decision making and communications.

One of the biggest PR problems for companies is that executives often make consequential decisions whilst failing to consider the optics. Take, for example, the seemingly inexplicable decision of Kyte Baby’s CEO, a baby clothing company, to fire one of her employees after not returning from maternity leave in order to care for her newly adopted baby.

Widespread public outcry followed when the employee shared on social media how, even though her baby was born premature, weighed 1 pound, and was in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) nine hours from their Dallas home, Kyte Baby not only refused her request to work remotely, but to add insult to injury, fired her on the spot.

You have to wonder if execs even take the time to confer with their communications teams before such fiascos. The importance of involving comms teams in the big decisions that shape a company's future is no longer a “nice to have” but a “must” to companies of all sizes in the social media-dominated landscape we live in.

How to avoid a PR disaster

The first step to avoid a PR disaster is to consider the consequences of any decision before making them, and certainly before announcing them. And because it is impossible for a single person, even if they are the CEO, to see a problem from every perspective (CEOs are human, too), they need to surround themselves with experts who can cover their blind spots.

Brands experience PR disasters when the communications department is uninvolved in both the decision making and the announcement of a decision. It’s not enough to just convey information from a particular perspective, but to consider the implications of the decision itself before making it. That was the case with Kyte Baby: why would a company that caters specifically to mothers fire a mother in her time of need? Of course the public would react negatively.

Keep messaging clear

Poorly crafted or ambiguous messaging leads to confusion, misinterpretation, and chaos. Clear and consistent communication is essential to convey the intended message and prevent misunderstandings. If PR professionals were known, back in the day, to be masters of jargon (also known as “PR-speak”), that place was taken long ago by CEOs and lawyers.

Take the now infamous example of Silicon Valley Bank, which released a press release that was so confusing and jargony that made customers and investors think the bank was failing, leading to a bank run that ironically caused the actual collapse. All it took was one press release written between the legal team and the executives at SVB, without the presence of a communications professional, to kickstart a chain of events that led to the second-biggest bank failure in US history.

If you add to the mix the rise of AI-generated press releases that are generic at best and confusing and overly verbose at worst, I would argue that this problem has become increasingly pervasive across all industries. Nowadays, I’m spending a considerable amount of time coaching CEOs to speak more directly and authentically.

One bad message can destroy a company

Involving communication teams in big decisions can also contribute to long-term brand and reputation management. Brands are not just built on products or services; they are shaped by the values and principles they exhibit. In collaboration with communication teams, executives can proactively assess how decisions align with the company’s ethos and values.

This foresight helps prevent inadvertent misalignments that might tarnish the company’s image in the eyes of its target audience. Furthermore, involving communication teams ensures that decisions are communicated with empathy and sensitivity. Issues such as layoffs, product recalls, or controversial policy changes require a nuanced approach to avoid alienating stakeholders.

Communications professionals can provide valuable insights into the potential emotional impact on employees, customers, and the wider community. This collaborative approach helps tailor messaging to address concerns, demonstrate transparency, and showcase the company's commitment to ethical practices.

You need a crisis communications plan

Besides having clear lines of communication with your comms team, there are a few other proactive steps you can take. For one, regularly conduct thorough risk assessments to identify potential PR challenges before they arise. Analyse industry trends, regulatory changes, and public sentiment to anticipate issues. By understanding the landscape, companies can proactively address potential pitfalls.

A second step is establishing well-defined crisis communication plans that outline clear protocols for different scenarios. In my experience, nine out of ten companies that I’ve worked with don’t have a crisis communication plan in place, nor have they considered it. It takes a communications expert to help them realise that they can tackle a crisis proactively instead of reactively.

Regularly reviewing and updating these plans to reflect changes in the business environment ensures that all key stakeholders know their roles and responsibilities in times of crisis. Prepare, mitigate, respond: that should be the order of crisis communications. Very few people outside of communications can help companies know how to devote adequate resources and the right personnel to doing so.

Leadership can't operate in isolation; your company’s success hinges on a collective effort. In the same way you hire experts to handle hiring, finances, sales, and virtually every aspect of the company, you need someone to be in charge of Comms.

You’ve hired these talented and trained individuals for a reason. Keeping your comms team in the loop in challenging times ensures the company's message stays true to its values and vision, demonstrating the power of unity in shaping and maintaining a brand's integrity.

Written by Gabriel de la Rosa Cols, principal at agency Intelligent Relations.

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