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Why great communicators make great leaders

The most successful organisations appreciate the role of good communications and ideally, are led by great communicators. Obviously, those who work in PR are likely to think that communication skills are a priority in business, but this isn’t just wishful thinking, it is backed up by solid research. As Ralph Tench, communication professor at Leeds Beckett University and one of the authors of Communication Excellence, based on the European Communication Monitor, says: “From our research over 10 years of the European Communication Monitor, we are confident of one thing, leadership is key. High-performing communicators are good leaders; and effective leaders are exemplary communicators. This is true whether inside or outside of the communication function.”

Communication skills must be embedded
Discussing the type of organisational structure that supports great communications, Tench emphasises the importance of having communication expertise embedded throughout: “Communication departments must have a communication leader who is part of, or at least is associated with, the top management of the organisation. At the same time, the department must have its representatives in all parts of an organisation, linking many into one.”

Coaching senior people is a vital part of building a great organisation says Tench: “Excellent departments are better aligned to the top management. Professionals working there spend less time engaged in operational work. They put more effort on coaching and consulting other members of the organisation with a highly significant focus on advising and enabling top executives.”

Poor leadership communication can be catastrophic
Underlining how a leader with poor communication skills can generate catastrophic PR, Ilana Como, head of brand and marketing, at recruitment specialist Alexander Mann Solutions, gives this example: “When the executive chairman of a high-profile advertising agency was suspended from his position after claiming women lack 'ambition' and insisting the low numbers of 'females in senior roles is not a problem', PR and HR professionals within the organisation must have been equally dismayed.

A brand’s figurehead is synonymous with brand perception. And ultimately, whilst a charismatic spokesperson can boost awareness of a company’s culture – increasing sales and attracting talent to move the business forwards – the consequences of a single slip of the tongue or a misjudged tweet can be catastrophic.“

The power of training
Like Tench, Como believes in the power of training to build savvy leaders: “In today’s digital world, it is unrealistic to expect every communication to be channelled through an in-house marketing department. For this reason it is now more important than ever before that senior leaders are trained in the art of communication. 

“This goes beyond generic media training. Business leaders and other spokespeople should be coached to engage in a way which is simultaneously on-brand, yet authentic across all channels. This relies on not only robust brand guidelines, but also a central point of contact to act as a sounding-board for queries.”

Get the backing of the board
Como says that this training must also filter through into the whole organisation, and this means that communication departments need to work alongside human resource departments: “The truth is that brand representatives will be active on social media sites, so it’s vital that PR and HR professionals continue the fight to get the backing of the board for a more robust online strategy and investment in skills development.

“Great brands are built from the inside out, and the power of a company’s brand must be leveraged by its people. Digital technologies are shifting the balance of power and, as such, managing reputation has never been so complex. In a post-digital age, every professional will innately manage online reputation just as they do offline communication. However, in the interim, PR, communications and HR professionals must work together to offer parameters and guidance around communications in order to protect their reputation, not least their employer brand.”

This is all fine in theory, but there are still too many businesses out there who do not value the importance of leading from the top when it comes to communications. Luckily, they can rely on their marketing and PR agencies to put them straight! Two agency professionals discuss the importance of having business leaders who are good communicators and how agencies can support them.

The role of an agency in influencing leaders

Mark Stringer, founder of marketing agency PrettyGreen: “The major issue with business leaders is that the media lens that they look through is tarnished by their own media biases, and how media used to be consumed. Clients are consumer centric, but when it comes to PR they struggle to align with what PROs mean by media and what we believe is success.

“A fantastic piece of coverage in traditional national print media is great and looks good in reception or on a CEO’s desk, but it’s likely to have a lot less impact than a brilliant online piece with a gallery of images, a video or an influencer post. Just because you can’t pick it up, doesn’t mean it has less value. 

“Agencies need to help business leaders understand that the ‘media’ landscape is made up today of traditional print and online, vloggers, bloggers, celebrity and influencer social channels, and that engagement and reach is critical, not just reach.

“Donald Trump is a great example of someone who has embraced the new world order, where a tweet to his 31.5m followers, is more powerful than an article in a US daily newspaper, which when combined have a weekly total circulation of 40m.”

Emma Streets, head of social media at marketing agency CreativeRace: “At a time where authentic, transparent communications from organisations is absolutely paramount, it’s essential for good comms to come from the top – regardless of industry. Working with a business leader that understands the importance of communications adds a level of influence that is a huge asset, from both an internal and external perspective. Some of the most successful leaders are those that recognise the power of great communication and keep their comms team close, in times of crisis, yes of course, but also when it’s business as usual. Ensuring that PR experts have the ear of their business leaders is vital, but can be overlooked in larger organisations – it’s often only during crisis issues when reputation is threatened from negative issues that drives this.

“To get ahead and engage with senior leaders, PR experts need to get in front of the board whenever possible – whether it’s reporting regularly on the organisations’ own comms results during business as usual times, or ensuring that senior management are prepared by instigating media training and factoring this into personal development plans for the senior team so that there is an objective-driven, measurable goal around prioritising effective communications from leaders. 

“Many business leaders are also increasingly looking to build their personal profiles on social media, and so you can use this as a way to regularly engage and keep them up to speed on new developments whilst effectively training them to manage their own reputation online.”

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