An effective CEO is widely accepted to be one who is able to tell a great story. While it is crucial to know business objectives and the numbers behind them, a CEO is expected to have superior communications skills that cut across an organisation’s various departments.
Given the importance of such a skill, why aren’t more PR professionals making the leap to the CEO seat? With data and tech dominating the businesses, does being a brilliant communicator take precedence in the board room?
During at a panel at Marketing’s PR Asia 2015 conference moderated by Stuart Pallister, director of corporate communications, NUS Business School, PR and marketing professionals agreed that while it takes a broad range of skills to qualify for the CEO role, a successful lead has to be able to put across a story in under three minutes.
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Chris Reed, global CEO and founder, Black Marketing pointed out that for any CEO dealing with a crisis, it’s a matter of style over substance when it comes to news delivery. Emma Dale, co-founder &managing director (Asia), Prospect, cited the example of Tony Fernandez, CEO of AirAsia, who is communication savvy on top of being business-focused.
Fernandez’s deep understanding of corporate affairs and the numbers that drive a business enables him to “sell the corporate story to a given audience.”
Eva Sogbanmu, director of external communications, Asia Pacific, JLL, concurred with this view, highlighting that PR professionals who aspire the top role, need to get a grip with spreadsheets and business issues.
“If more PR folks get the numbers right and learn to measure results in terms of data and impact, it would pave the ways for us to get to the top echelons of the company,” Sogbanmu said.
For PR professionals, however, the route to the top is not necessarily a direct one.
Does PR stand a solid chance?
To get noticed by the board, it is crucial for PR professionals to build their personal brand within the organisation and outside. “You must be known by the executive team and people of other teams. No one is going to experience your skill set unless you’re making yourself visible,” Dale said.
In addition, experiencing and immersing oneself in other aspects of the business is absolutely crucial for PR folks to gain an understanding of the intricacies of the organisation.
A good place to start would be spending time with different department heads to get a bird’s eye view of various structures and processes.
Sogbanmu said: “One of the advantages of being in corp comms is being able to find face time with top level management.” Being in the frontline of advising senior stakeholders of a company elevates a comms personnel’s role to their level. Due to this, a PR specialist is often easily seen as a trusted advisor, easing the potential leap to the boardroom.
Verdayne Nunis, director of communications, commercial business, Microsoft, said it’s equally important for PR folks to enhance their visibility beyond just people within the organisation. Aside from spending a lot of time building the CEO’s profile, a comms person needs to influence everybody else that has a seat in the board room by continuing bringing insights to the table.
Nunis said: “There is no comprehensive way of measuring PR so you need to communicate that to the C-suite and show how you add values in different ways.”
Because the PR role automatically entails professional exposure for an individual, building an influential network is key to expanding one’s breadth and depth of expertise. This, according to Nunis, helps a brand effectively communicate to a wide range of audience – a business goal of any organisation.
Thus, in theory, with enhanced visibility and broad exposure, PR professionals make the perfect candidate for a top seat in the board room.
The case for PR in the boardroom
More than ever now, earning a seat in the boardroom has become a crucial move for PR professionals who are eager to create an impact for their company.
With reputation contributing to over 25% of a company’s market value, reputation risk tops the rank as the most strategic risk that a company may face in the digital age. With a slew of potential problems such as cyber security and intellectual property newly posed by the advent of technology, companies now face the greater struggle of overcoming technological challenges that are impacting their businesses.
Add to that, consumers are leapfrogging straight to mobile. As such, CEOs are also going into the social space where their consumers are making them better equipped when they engage in social media right where the key conversations are taking place.
Roger Pua, senior director, corporate communications LinkedIn, Asia-Pacific, concurred with this finding. Acccording to him, CEO sociability is at an all-time high with 80% of CEOs now engaging in social media as compared to 36% in 2010.
And because CEOs are undoubtedly the face of the company, they are responsible for enhancing a brand or company’s image via social mediums. Taking this into consideration, Pua predicted that linking business strategy with communications will become one of the key issues for communicators in APAC in the next three years.
As such, given the added roles that a senior leadership now plays in the Internet era, communications professionals are the ones best suited to not only guide, but also lead a company’s communications on the digital front.
So what’s holding them back?
When asked what PR is not doing right to get the top role, Dale said that there’s not much that’s holding the industry back: “Ambitious people who want the CEO role will work towards that. Now is the best time to get it because our role has evolved to that of a business communicator.”
Nunis also pointed out the need to “champion for the PR community” when discussing about candidates for the top seat. “We need to raise our visibility and show the kind of impact that we have.” One way is to encourage and advocate the use of PR work as part of C-suite’s conversation so that PR becomes part of the board room vernacular on a regular basis.
On the other hand, Sogbanmu stressed that while there are a lot of ambitious PR folks, some are simply used to being in the background advisory role: “We are used to coaching people at the back, so the thought of stepping out of your comfort zone is huge deal. The CEO role and the level of exposure expected of you is not necessarily a comfortable place to be for PR professionals.” Because PR folks are most familiar of the pitfalls of being the face of the company, some may choose to remain in the advisory role.
Dale added that a comms director role is a great job, with most PR folks genuinely enjoy being in the background. As such, only a minority would gun for the top spot in the first place.