In 2021, Vision and Visibility Are No Longer Electives for CEOs

As our nation reeled in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, a man whose mission is to fight for justice noticed a shift from the C-suite. “CEOs have become the fourth branch of government,” the Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt told The New York Times. “They’re trying to hold the country together.”

For years, communications counselors have helped CEOs navigate the opportunities for executive visibility. A month into 2021, it’s clearer than ever that for most executives, this is no longer an optional part of the job.

In 2021, Vision and Visibility Are No Longer Electives for CEOs - Microphone on abstract background

The incentives for engaging in external communications were already there for the C-suite: Research compiled by Ketchum Analytics makes the case for executive presence and its positive impact on areas including shareholder value, consumer purchase intent, employment brand and beyond. Now, though, it’s not only about the upside. In an age of fast-moving activism, the absence of a point of view can be noticeable.

This is not to say a CEO must have an opinion on every issue of the day. In fact, the risks of speaking out are sometimes higher than the rewards. As Rebecca Ray at the nonpartisan Conference Board notes, “You could be celebrated for something one week and pilloried the next” thanks to fickle stakeholders. At Ketchum, we recommend stakeholder research that can help navigate the difficult waters of audience expectations in a fast-moving world and ultimately help you make the right decision for where executives and your company should weigh in.

But regardless of when, how or if companies speak out on tricky issues, executives in 2021 must have the vision laid out for their role leading businesses and employees through COVID-19 and its implications. CEOs are proving to be among the most important voices on the pandemic. From how they are transitioning and protecting their business to keeping employees safe and even the corporate role in vaccine distribution, the executive voice is important this year.

The same can be said for CEOs who spoke out about racial justice. 2021 will be the year CEOs are held increasingly accountable as last year’s promises come due. Stakeholders, including journalists, are taking notes and marking their calendars for key milestones. And the scrutiny around post-election violence and employee-funded Political Action Committees has just begun.

This year, as executives revisit their personal narratives and map their path forward when speaking to a variety of stakeholders, they should consider audiences, authenticity, action and accountability.

A decision tree with a series of branches to guide real-time executive communications will be a valuable tool for many C-suites this year. But a tree is only as strong as the trunk. At Ketchum we are helping executives reexamine their vision and visibility by starting at the base:

  • Audiences. Update stakeholder research to ensure we truly understand expectations of our most important audiences, where we have permission to lead and where/how to best engage them.
  • Authenticity. Build or retool an executive’s personal narrative to match the expectations of this unique time; ensure the executive is showing up consistently throughout earned media, social channels, in speaking engagements and employee communications.
  • Action. Plot a course to ensure visible reinforcement of your story with content in paid, owned and earned channels that reach the key stakeholders. Ensure actions taken at a corporate level are authentic, and understand potential positive and negative reputational impact.
  • Accountability. Ensure there is a thread between commitments and priorities made in 2020, and how they are playing out this year.
  • Analytics, Measure the reputation and business impact and use analytics tools, including omniearnedID, to assess and improve how we are targeting certain audiences.   

The complexity of this year’s issues landscape is enough to give pause to anyone’s visibility plans, but staying quiet is not an option, and not without reputational risk. Reach out to Samantha Wolf or Bill Zucker and let us help you update your plans for vision and visibility.