Words Matter: How Careless Messaging Strategies Put Companies and CEOs at Risk
What senior executives say, how they say it and whom they say it to can jeopardize deals and financial outcomes. In fact, the C-suite, companies, employees and stockholders can pay dearly when leadership doesn’t take a thoughtful and deliberate approach to corporate messaging.
The truth is – words matter. Senior executives who want to position their companies for long-term success and increase revenue need to drive communication strategies, own the message, align leadership around that message and speak with transparency and authenticity.
Prime example: Ford Motor Company learned from its messaging mistakes
Last year, Ford and its CEO paid the price for a corporate messaging strategy that was shortsighted, misaligned and unclear.
With former CEO Mark Fields at the helm, Ford’s stock dropped 37 percent. Shareholders lost faith in Ford, due in part to Fields’ mishandling of the news that Ford was moving jobs to Mexico and his failure to communicate that the company had a plan in place to maintain jobs in Detroit.
This miscommunication placed Ford directly in the crosshairs of then presidential candidate Donald Trump – and Washington – which left Fields and Ford scrambling. Ultimately, Ford’s board of directors realized that Fields didn’t set the company up for success. So they fired Fields and hired a new CEO.
Fast-forward to June 2017. Ford’s head of global operations Joe Hinrichs announced the company would outsource Ford Focus production to China. Unlike Fields’ communications miscue, Ford made a point to stress that jobs in Michigan would NOT be lost but shifted to the production of more profitable vehicles. The automaker also said it would invest $900 million to build SUVs at a Kentucky plant and secure 1,000 jobs.
Ford appears to have learned from its past CEO’s mistakes. Sure, admitting the company would be outsourcing production to China was a difficult message to deliver. However, Ford’s transparency and decision to deliver positive news at the same time made the message easier for both stockholders and the public to accept.
Four ways successful CEOs ensure corporate messaging yields positive outcomes
Taking corporate messaging lightly – as Ford’s former CEO did – can lead to dire consequences. Top CEOs take several steps to ensure long-term success for their companies and themselves, including:
No. 1: They own the messaging.
It may be tempting to delegate the responsibility of corporate messaging to marketing, legal or human resources, but savvy CEOs don’t do that. Deciding on the best message to deliver on behalf of the company is the CEOs responsibility, and senior executives must take that responsibility seriously.
No. 2: They take steps to ensure the leadership team is aligned and clearly understands the message.
The alignment around communication and messaging is almost as important as the message itself. In fact, lack of alignment causes many of the communication mishaps that occur in organizations today.
So it is essential to take steps to make sure everyone in the organization is on the same page. The best way to ensure alignment is to communicate the message three times in three different ways to the brand ambassadors who will pass that message to employees, stockholders and the public.
- Speak it.
- Write it down.
- Pick a third way or medium to get the message across (video, podcast, webinar, etc.).
Sharing the message three times in three different ways helps members of the leadership team – brand ambassadors – internalize the message and get it right. Skip this step and the team may get part of the message wrong, which can lead to discrepancy in message and confusion. Remember – the goal here is to get everyone on the same page.
No. 3: When new to senior management, they adjust their mindset and how they operate.
While being bold and outspoken and speaking off the cuff may propel some middle managers to the corner office, that form of communication doesn’t serve senior management well.
Every piece of communication a CEO or president speaks, writes or records – even in confidence – can be taken out of context. Senior managers need to develop a new way of operating to stay in the corner office.
Again, words matter. So it’s essential for senior executives to over prepare, be cautious and not be flippant about what is said. That’s not to say a CEO can’t be excited and inspirational. Executives just need to be more measured about what they say and how each message is communicated – regardless of the audience.
No. 4: They decide whom they want to serve – either stockholders or customers.
The public marketplace penalizes bad news, and that can be a real problem. Unfortunately, the stock of publicly traded companies can take a hit when transparent messages are negative. That’s why transparency often takes the back seat when leadership chooses to serve the investor.
While a strategy of concealing bad news and challenges a company is facing may provide a short-term path to success, it typically won’t help a company prosper over the long-term. Eventually, the truth about the organization’s problems will come out.
Conversely, companies that serve the customer are more likely to realize long-term success. Why? They know that messaging that is both authentic and transparent increases customer loyalty, which ultimately drives profits.
Serving the customer can be a real challenge for the C-suite – especially those in publicly traded companies. CEOs who choose to serve customers over stockholders need to be very clear with their board of directors – the people who can fire them – and say:
“We need to be transparent about this issue and be authentic about how we communicate what’s going on. Yes, we’re going to get pummeled and our stock is going to plummet, but if we take our licks early and do the right thing, we’ll win in the long-run by building a loyal customer base.”
JCPenney® is one example of a company that has embraced transparency. The company brought back its former CEO, Marvin Ellison, and he’s trying to turn the company around in a transparent way. The company’s stock hasn’t recovered yet, due to the tumultuous retail landscape and the CEO’s honesty about the challenges the company is facing. However, JCPenney is more likely to survive in the long-term due to Ellison’s transparency and authenticity with customers, employees and stockholders. Time will tell.Beyond the message: Innovation breeds success
Driving and owning a corporate messaging strategy that helps grow sales and improve ROI is one of the many responsibilities top executives tackle today. In order to stay profitable – in good times and bad – successful leaders don’t rest on their laurels – they embrace and drive innovation to outpace the competition.
At Promote On Purpose, we help innovative companies execute effective lead generation programs that meet and exceed performance goals. We even offer a Performance Guarantee.