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CEO Communications Guidelines: Avoiding C-Suite-Caused Crises

CEO Communications Guidelines

Elon Musk, technology innovator and founder of SpaceX and the Tesla electric car company, frequently turns to social media to promote his latest thoughts or update followers on progress on various projects. Like many other tech-company founders, he tends to operate like he IS his company, and cannot be bothered to work within the norms of smart public relations. He enjoys being seen as a rule-breaker. In August 2018, he may have actually broken a rule that could add to Tesla’s development problems—he suggested in a tweet that he was considering taking the car company private. This prompted a wild stock trading session on Wall Street. A few days later, Musk backed away from going private.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigated Musk and charged him for committing securities fraud; Musk was compelled to agree to pay fines, step down as Tela’s Chairman, and accept new corporate controls and procedures overseeing Musk’s communications. In Spring 2019, the SEC charged Musk with violating the terms of the agreement. He continued to tweet about Tesla’s financial outlook, as well as openly mocking the SEC. His brand managers should investigate him for confusing his personal brand with his duties as a company leader.

CEO Egos Run Rampant

Musk is hardly alone in serving his ego over the company brand. Many CEOs and C-suite officers forget they represent a company or brand whenever they speak, tweet or opine in the media (or just direct donations to CEO-preferred causes). Speaking of Chick-Fil-A, the company suspended its connections with charities promoting anti-gay missions… in the wake of new chicken sandwich competition from Popeye’s. (Yeah, that sounds really sincere.)

In 2017, John Schnatter of Papa John’s pizza, believing he IS the brand, caused enough mayhem to get booted by his own board of directors. Schnatter continued the havoc by suing the board of directors and the new CEO to “stop the irreparable harm” they were causing.* Then there are the CEOs who forget that they have an obligation to hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior to protect the company. Increased corporate transparency means the actions and opinions of company leaders can no longer enjoy a guarantee of confidentiality; if you say it (or do it conspicuously), it will become public

This means new challenges for brand and crisis communications managers. In this era of entrepreneurial leadership, how does one persuade the founder or CEO to “put a sock in it?”

Brand and Social Media Policy for CEOs

We’d like to offer some guidelines for C-suite officers everywhere:

You are not the brand. No matter how it swells your ego to think so, your personal brand is not the same as the company brand. They are not one and the same. When speaking as an individual, make sure you state “the opinion expressed is my own” and not necessarily that of the brand.

The company brand takes precedence over your personal brand. Shareholder dividends and employee jobs are at stake every time you open your mouth or extend your tweeting thumbs. Stop and ask if what you’re about to say or post is aligned to the company’s brand.

Use your voice to promote the company and the brand. It would be helpful if you give PR/ Legal/ Marketing and Brand Management a heads-up when you do this, so they can coordinate messaging around your remarks.

Avoid venting. Just because you have an opinion does not mean you need to share it. Consider how your desire to personally vent about something may negatively reflect on the company brand. Vent to your dog—dogs are always happy to listen, and won’t leak your comments to the press.

There will be crossover between brand and personal brand communities. Expect to engage with people who perceive the two brands as alike; exercise discrimination in how and to what communications you respond to. In short, never forget that you are “always on” as the brand’s leader.

You are not the brand. We can’t repeat it enough. Stop, think, and opt for a smile and a mission-focused reply. If in doubt, don’t comment at all.

Be respectful. People who respond to your statements may not respect you. But you should always lead by respecting them. Be polite, informative and absolutely not snarky. Snark is a luxury a CEO—and the brand—cannot afford.

Safety first! If people you interact with become aggressive or threatening, block and report them, so the company can ensure you and the company’s employees are safe.

Absolutely do not share insider information. There are rules about triggering stock market fluctuations and insider trading. This is not a negotiable, at-your-discretion rule.

Make no public disparaging remarks about employees, clients, vendors or other business contacts. The company could be held liable for defamation or libel because you picked a fight in a moment’s impulse. Or human resources might have to contend with employee lawsuits. Aside from legal fallout, the damage to relationships and retention efforts could be immeasurable. Just don’t. 

Respect confidentiality. Your clients and customers have a right to expect the company to protect information and intellectual property they have entrusted to you. Don’t violate their trust.

If in doubt, refer to the PR and Legal departments for guidance/strategy. You pay these folks for wise counsel. You may not end up agreeing with them, but listen to their counsel; often they are correct.

Learn how to apologize.If anything you say or post causes a substantial negative reaction, PLEASE… work with PR, Legal and the brand manager to choose an appropriate tone and message for a follow-up, apology or retraction. Non-apology apologies won’t cut it. Flying solo may only make the situation worse, and attract ongoing major media attention.

Never lie. We believe this is self-explanatory.

Finally, YOU are not THE BRAND.  Got it? Good.

Our final thought regarding CEOs and their company brands is this: while an individual can create a company and grow it into a successful business, at some point, the company becomes its own entity, with its own brand, focus and future. Accept that its direction and needs are no longer perfectly aligned with the founder’s, and leading the firm becomes less fraught with the snares of ego and personal brand expression. It’s a tough lesson, but one ad agencies with brand communications and PR specialties should strive to teach to their clients. 

* Even as we posted this piece, Schnatter did an interview denigrating Papa John’s pizzas as in decline without his direction, and vowing a “day of reckoning.”

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