CEO comms: why silence is not golden

Hot on the heels of the Sainsbury’s 50p challenge story I published last week, the name Justin King caught my eye in the latest UK issue of PR Week.

Justin (pictured) was CEO of the supermarket chain from 2004 until July this year and was interviewed by the publication. In the article he talked about the reality of CEO communication and why silence is not golden.

justin-kingI thought it was a good read from Alex Benady, and there were a couple of quotes that stood out for me. So thought I’d write an extended article to share them with you, see whether they match your experience, and offer my own on all things CEO comms related.

Grab a cup of tea and some biscuits as it’s a chunky read. I know from the search terms on my blog that my readers are interested in this topic, so let’s get stuck in.

Thoughts on CEO comms: why silence is not golden

“Justin King is a natural communicator who enjoys the give and take of human interaction even when it concerns bad news.”

“King… says he first really woke up to the power of communication to sway opinion when he was being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 in the early days of his tenure at Sainsbury’s.

“Early on at Sainsbury’s we took a conscious decision to talk to customers at every opportunity. We took the view that silence was not golden, so I was explaining our plan for Sainsbury’s and I watched as sentiment as measured by the emails actually changed during the course of the interview.”

When to communicate
PR Week I couldn’t agree more with this. I’ve experienced first-hand and watched the uncertainty and doubt that spreads when CEOs are silent.

In this situation, King was talking with customers, which is often a priority, however, it’s important to remember “internal customers” too – employees.

Comms teams spend time working alongside senior leaders to encourage them to be open, share information and interact regularly with employees.

It’s important to do this in “peace times,” and critical in “war times” – e.g. when your organisation is facing a crisis.

Wheeling out a CEO to make a statement internally when you’re experiencing a crisis without doing the ground work with business-as-usual internal communication can often backfire. This is usually because employees feel they don’t have an active relationship with them, or they’re merely a mouthpiece.

Authenticity and trust are key.

I always advocate senior leaders being visible, present and commenting, but it’s far better if they are coming from a position of strength, with employees knowing who they are and how they think.

Top tip: Continue to constantly encourage senior leaders to communicate with employees, and ensure there are effective two-way channels and opportunities in place to do this (Tweet this).

It is not good enough for CEOs to appear to take credit when times are good and criticise when times are bad, they need to maintain a constant presence through effective internal communication.

Plugging the gap

IC_1Employees look to their organisations to plug the gap in knowledge and to help make sense of situations when they occur.

Communication provides context, support, understanding and opportunities to ask questions. If there is poor internal communication in place, they will simply plug that gap with rumours, gossip, speculation and mistrust.

Top tip: You cannot over-communicate, particularly during a crisis and especially through change. (Tweet this)

I’ve seen it countless times when the silence from the organisation goes on too long – why the share price is down, whether a plant is due to close, what the changes to the market mean for your company etc – your CEO and senior leaders have a vital role to provide context, clarity and clear communication.

Top tip: It’s ok to say you recognise their concerns and can’t provide further info at that point in time, BUT do give an indication when you plan to update employees. (Tweet this)

It’s often for good reason that you can’t share everything all at once (e.g. union negotiations, share price etc), but companies need to recognise the importance of keeping employees updated with a consistent flow of information and provide opportunities for response.

Proactive and reactive PR

Many CEOs go out of their way to avoid unmanaged interaction – largely for fear of what might happen. But King is comparatively rare in that he embraces it. “There’s proactive and reactive PR. But I enjoy even reactive communications because it gives you the opportunity to tell a positive story.

“It’s like any other customer complaint – good because it means we can do something about it. Comms is the richest seam of information about your business.”

Let’s just take a moment to digest that.

Comms is the richest seam of information about your business. (Tweet this)

Isn’t it just!

IC_2According to the article, when King was CEO at Sainsbury’s he spent as much as 50 per cent of his time on comms, in one guise or another. The retailer had two heads of comms, one internal and one external, and in theory they reported to the heads of HR and marketing respectively. In practice, says King, they worked very closely with him.

“In his view communication is a dialogue, not a monologue, and is at least as much about listening as speaking. Both are things King prefers to do for himself.”

Don’t you wish you could clone him?!

Top tip: The practice of working closely with the CEO is one I’m a big fan of. If there are too many layers in place, you lose a sense of authenticity because the comms team don’t know the person.

I’ve written before about my feelings on ghostwriting (yuck). It’s a lot harder creating plans and face-to-face opportunities when you don’t know their communication style and whether what you’re suggesting would work well for them, or if a different approach would be better.

Further reading: See my internal comms glossary if some of these words or descriptions of internal communication are new to you. If there’s something you want me to explain or add to the list, just holler.

CEO comms in action

Walking the walk alongside talking the talk is essential for effective CEO communication. I was delighted to discover via the piece that King spent “three out of four Fridays on a shop floor and personally answered every single customer letter addressed to him.”

IC_3What’s the scale of their operation? Sainsbury’s is one of the UK’s largest retailers, it was founded in 1869 and today operates 1,106 supermarkets and convenience stores and employs around 157,000 colleagues.

King clearly kept a beady eye on the external world too, he reportedly read all the press cuttings at the start of each day. Nine days out of ten he would follow up some aspect of them.

The reality of being the voice

King confesses that being the voice of a large corporation is not always easy. “Being padlocked in a small featureless room talking to camera can be disorienting,” he admits. But when you are talking about your passion it is fine.

He is not saying that there is only one way to use comms to lead the business or even that his is the best way: “Every chief executive has to do it their way.” The key, he says, is that you have to be genuinely sincere.

Does this resonate with you?
Do you effectively lock your CEO in a featureless room, turn a camera on and expect them to sparkle? You’re not the only one.

So what can you do?

Here are my tips for CEO comms:
  • Get to know your CEO – and their personal assistant if they have one, as soon as you or they are new in role.
  • If you spot your leaders sitting in a communal area e.g. employee restaurant alone, ask if you can join them. Being boss can be a lonely job!
  • Take time to understand their communication style and preferences – you need to tailor what you do for them, not just do what the CEO in your organisation has always done. One size does not fit all, so choose appropriately.
  • Always look for opportunities to encourage face-to-face interactions with employees.
  • Ensure your CEO has plenty of opportunity to listen to employee feedback – and commits to act on it.
  • Remember they are human! Build in time for them to recover from jet lag before sticking a mic in their hand or camera in their face.
  • It’s ok for them to admit to being human – being transparent about mistakes, to share their thinking and to encourage debate and discussion from employees.
  • Consider CEO exit and entrance comms plans carefully (when they join or leave a company).
  • Don’t make internal comms all about the CEO – ensure employees know who all the senior leaders are and where the decisions happen.This is important because if you’ve created ‘hero-worship’ scenarios and they leave/retire, it’s hard to rectify through internal communication.
  • Consistency is key. If they start to blog, ensure it’s kept up. If they commit to seeing all employees face-to-face over a year, make sure it’s seen through.
  • Think about language choice carefully. See my article on ‘pompous management comms at the BBC‘ for more info.
  • Look for chances for personal interactions. E.g. could they hand-write birthday/recognition cards for employees (I’ve heard about CEOs of enormous companies taking a day or two out of their calendars to do this huge task).
  • Regularly gauge feedback from employees re: what they think about the leadership in your organisation. If you build up a good relationship with them, they will expect you to know what employees currently think of them – do you?
  • Be yourself. Don’t always talk about comms with the CEO, get to know what makes them tick and develop your own professional working relationship as a trusted adviser.

The new CEO, Mike Coupe is now in role at Sainsbury’s, having been appointed on 7 July, it will be interesting to see how he shapes the role to be his own and what his approach to comms is.

You can read the whole piece featuring Justin King via the PR Week website.

Final thoughts
IC_4I worked for a decade in internal communication in-house, and regardless of my ranking in the comms team or company, I always made sure I got to know my senior leadership team and their personal assistants.

These are invaluable relationships that can influence and enhance how you work, and I have remained in contact with most of the CEOs I’ve worked with.

Top tip: Don’t be the note-taker in the corner. Be the trusted adviser, confidential ear and person they know they can seek an honest opinion of….

Be that telling them they need to change their bra as it can be seen under lights at an employee event (yes I’ve had to do that), need to brush their jacket due to dandruff before being on camera (ditto), or answering the “what do employees really think of me Rachel?” comment with an informed answer.

Part of our role as internal communicators is ensuring there isn’t silence. It’s not golden, it can be detrimental.

As ever, I welcome your comments on what you’ve read. What works for your CEO comms? What have you seen work well and what would you encourage other IC pros to avoid?

You can comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC.


First published on All Things IC blog 8 October 2014.

Made it to the end? Well done – told you it was a chunky one! Hope your tea hasn’t gone cold.


  1. AMEE says:

    Rachel – Great article with great examples (as usual)! I enjoy reading the parallels between your examples and the clients my company (Red e App) works with. I wonder though, what tools are the companies using whose employees aren’t connected to corporate email?


  2. […] Rachel Miller of All Things IC recently published a great blog post with lots of tips on CEO comms in general: […]

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