CEO communication:

what to say, when you really can’t say


Published on: April 2019

Written by: Suzanne Bates

If there’s such a thing as a “routine dilemma” for CEOs and C-Suite leaders, it’s figuring out how to handle confidential matters that at some point will not be confidential.

In effect, the closer you get to the top, the more important it is to know what to say, when you can’t really say.

Many issues can and will be handled by a small circle of people and that’s appropriate. As CEO you should have a trusted circle of people who quietly, thoughtfully, and confidentially consider issues with you and help you deal with matters. These trusted advisors must not only be able to keep confidences, but also understand how to communicate in ways that don’t make people feel concerned or ratchet up speculation. Handling sensitive and difficult matters in an organization requires you to balance the need for confidentiality with the need and desire people have for information.

What to say when you anticipate changes

Many confidential matters have to do with organizational change. And change is always happening!  As you make plans and you roll them out you need to inform, inspire, align, and engage. In the planning stages of a merger, acquisition, IPO or business product launch, there will be a quiet period when only a few are in the know. You can protect the confidential discussions and provide space for decisions while also planning how you’ll roll it out.

When people get wind of change, you will need to be prepared, appearing to be front-footed and transparent, while assuring people that the change is necessary for the future, and reassuring them there is a plan.

“A general rule is to be appropriately transparent without compromising confidentiality.”

A general rule is to be appropriately transparent without compromising confidentiality. Remember that people usually sense or hear rumors about what is happening. If you don’t tell them something, they’ll fill the vacuum with their own speculation. And what they imagine often isn’t how things will be better.

Restructuring, reorganizing, hiring and exiting people all fall into a slightly different category of change.  Though these changes are anticipated, they often appear threatening to people, which is why you also need to follow some guidelines. It’s important to remember that communication about sensitive matters regarding people, in matters like layoffs or exits, should express respect, keep it brief, and to share only what needs to be said. A good set of guidelines for big announcements like mergers are to express optimism about the future, explain why it’s happening, and promise you’ll share more when you can.

“Saying nothing is not a strategy.”

If you’re a CEO, you should expect a sophisticated communications plan from your team, and you should also understand these principles and commit them to heart. You should always be thinking about who needs to know what, and when, as well as how best to share the news with each audience, and make sure people have a chance to respond and engage. This should be standard operating procedure in any change management.  Making decisions is just the beginning. Executing your plan successfully depends entirely on the quality of your communications.

What to say in a crisis

There’s a far higher bar for crisis where a mistake can cost the company its reputation, and very often, its future. Public disasters, embarrassing matters, illegal actions by employees, and investigations can ruin a company, and we only need to look at Lehman Brothers to know there is no company too big to fail. The time to develop your approach to handling a crisis is not when it happens. You need to educate yourself and your team and have a sophisticated crisis plan on deck to stay prepared.

“The time to develop your approach to handling a crisis is not when it happens.”

It is almost never the event that is the undoing of the company. The public and your employees have a large capacity for forgiveness. What they will not tolerate is a lack of concern for others or arrogance. What you do in the first 24 to 72 hours after a crisis sets the stage.

Once an event becomes public, you have little time to consider how you will react, much less how you will inform and reassure employees, customers, vendors, investors and your board. All this should be prepared in a crisis communications plan that the senior leadership and key people who need to execute know and affirm is the plan.

Why aren’t companies prepared?

It’s quite astounding how many large, global organizations are unprepared for bad news. A lack of preparedness has little or nothing to do with the size of the organization. Preparation is about mindset. It’s understanding that bad things can happen, though you hope they won’t, and that you need to act in ways that may not be instinctive if you’re going to save your company’s reputation and long-term viability.

Crisis planning is about thinking worst case scenario and become sophisticated at understanding how to recover your company’s reputation and credibility. There are countless companies in recent times that have demonstrated a lack of sophistication in this area, from Wells Fargo, to British Petroleum, Volkswagon, and many more.

In these cases, it was clear that the senior executives and board did not have a plan, nor did they take seriously the potential consequences of a reputational crisis. Every company needs to learn from this and not believe that they are somehow different. If you are not faced with a crisis, you will have the peace of mind of knowing you were prepared. If crisis happens, you will not have to have a fight for the soul of the company while you duel over what to do.

Your instincts may be wrong

Very often our instincts are to say nothing in a crisis, and, frankly, to do nothing for fear it will cause more harm than good.  While this may be a normal human reaction, it is not a strategy. If you have not planned, your actions will be perceived as driven by self-interest. Others will regard you as concerned for yourself or your company first.  This will be quickly reinforced by the legal team whose job it is to manage risk by disclosing as little as possible.

Saying too little, and doing too little, also has consequences, often far more serious and long-lasting than saying something. It’s the something you say that matters, and you can say something meaningful without disclosing too much.

Get the right people in the room

Your communications team and your PR firm should always be involved in matters that may have or already have gone public. The simplest rules of crisis communication are to acknowledge, apologize, and discuss not what you’re going to do, but the process for resolving the issue. If you remember these three steps, especially always reassuring people there is a process to move to resolution, you can avoid 95% of the secondary crisis that usually ensnares organizations and their leaders.

I can remember sitting around the table with a global sales team of a financial services company, as they worked through how to communicate a serious investigation by a regulatory agency in Washington, D.C. They knew that their customers would be extremely concerned about a pending federal regulatory probe of the company. We spent hours working through the nuances of internal and external communications. The news still landed with a thud, but they were able to manage it because so much thought went into preparation.

The three P’s of communicating when you aren’t ready to say much

You can manage by remembering three “P” words of timely communication. Those are:

  • Plan – tell people what you are going to do and why
  • Process – explain the process for how you will right the wrong or address the issue
  • Progress – keep them up to date as you work toward the objectives and achieve success
It can happen to you

Knowing what to say when you can’t say has become a more urgent need for organizations. This is in part because of the speed of news, and the magnitude of disasters today. Companies are larger, events have a more global impact, the media has changed to become more adversarial and judgmental. Couple that with the impact that social media sites have on companies today in creating lore that is spread fast and regarded forever as fact and you have a lethal mix of forces that can take your company down.

The paradox of leading is that it requires you to gather information, consider facts, deliberate issues, study consequences, and make good decisions. At the same time, people want and expect to be reasonably informed. They crave accurate, current information and fill the void when it’s not there. You must earn the right to lead by communicating at the right time with the right message to the right audiences.

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