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Help executives understand the need for clear,
concise communication by Rodney Gray and Larry Robertson
In this article, Rodney Gray, employee communication research specialist,
argues the case for improving senior executive communication in organiza-
key drivers of effective change
management found a strong sta-
tions. Larry Robertson, communication advisor to senior executives, out- tistical relationship between
lines what communicators can do to support CEO and senior executive CEO and divisional executive

Senior executives, especially the
CEO, provide leadership to
align the organization with its
vision. They set the direction,
and their behavior determines
the tone and culture—how the
vision will be achieved.
But employees are often not
impressed. In countless organizations,
employees say that
their senior executives are not
visible (which employees interpret
to mean that they don’t
care), they give few clues as
to the future direction of the
company, they are not open
and honest, they don’t involve
and consult those affected by
change, they fail to recognize
achievement, and sometimes
they even punish those who
raise issues. Certainly this is not
the case in all organizations,
but sadly it is true of many.
Research reveals that improving
the communication of senior
executives, especially the CEO,
may be the most cost-effective
way to improve employees’
satisfaction with communication

in their organizations.
“Finding the Right Direction,”
in the November–December
2004 issue of CW, described
how research conducted in
Australia found that effective
senior executive communication
is generally one of the highest
correlates of satisfaction with
internal communication (typically
around 0.7 out of 1.0).
However, on average, only
38 percent of Australian employees
are satisfied with communication
with their senior
executives, and only 35 percent
with communication with their
CEOs. About two-thirds of
employees are not prepared to
say they are satisfied.
Not a pretty picture. Little
wonder that many executives
complain that their workforce is
not “engaged.” The high correlation
between ineffective communication
by senior executives
and low levels of employee satisfaction
is likely to be the case in
other countries as well.
What’s more, a study conducted
for the Allen Consulting
Group in 2003 to identify the

key drivers of effective change
management found a strong statistical
relationship between
CEO and divisional executive
communication and “organizational
satisfaction and culture.”
This correlates strongly with
employees’ perceptions that
“major changes appear well
planned” and “implementation
of changes is well handled,” as
described in CW. CEO and divisional
executive communication
was found to be far more likely
to influence employees’ perceptions
that change was well
planned and well implemented
than, say, immediate manager or
team communication.
Communication audit results
from other organizations reveal
some very shabby scores:
n 10 percent of employees agreed
that executives were aware of
their concerns.
n 15 percent agreed that the
head office communicated
n 19 percent agreed that senior
executives were visible.
n 19 percent agreed that executives
sought their views and
n 21 percent agreed that they
were informed of plans and
n 23 percent agreed that executives
communicated well.

26 Communication World I July-August 2005


To put these audit findings
into perspective, our research
found that, on average, 61 percent
of employees are satisfied
with communication with their
immediate manager, and 63 percent
understand the expectations
of them in their job roles.
It’s not as if employees’
demands on senior executives
are that taxing. Research of
what topics employees wish to
hear about from their CEO
reveals a limited range of such
“big picture” topics as:
n The future of the organization.
n Overall corporate strategy.
n Top-line financial results.
n Major changes (e.g., redundancies).
n Feedback from the board of
directors (or, in the public
sector, government).
n Major stakeholder issues.
n Responses to media attention.
Employees also understand
that the CEO and other executives
can’t visit often. For example,
pilots in a 17,000-employee
airline said they didn’t need to
hear from the popular CEO personally
about the future of the
business (which was precarious
at the time) because “he’s too
busy.” But they did expect to be
kept fully informed by the chief
pilot (the senior executive
responsible for them).
Curiously, big road shows or
town hall meetings don’t appear
to be the answer, although they
feature the CEO and/or other
executives “live.” Typically,
50 to 60 percent of employees
in Australia are satisfied with
them, but these events correlate
only moderately with
their overall satisfaction with
Research suggests that the
“tools” we use (road shows,
intranet, e-mail, video streaming,
newsletters and the like) can
be used to support face-to-face

CEOs seem to be listening

Arecent survey of 500 PR practitioners conducted
by IABC and PR News provides some
hope for the future of executive communication.
While research may well show that employees in
many organizations think communication with
their senior executives can improve, most heads
of corporate communication think their CEOs at
least have the right attitude. Fully 80 percent of
PR heads believe their CEO “understands the
importance of communication, not just when there
is an issue or crisis.” However, one in 10 do not.
Moreover, 70 percent say their CEOs “see PR
as an investment in the future, not just a cost.”
And two-thirds say the CEO “usually accepts my
recommendations.” But again, one in 10 say
their CEO does not.
Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed said
their CEOs “willingly make an effort (that is, put
in time) to maintain good relations with employees.”
This is ahead of their efforts to maintain
good relations with stockholders (64 percent),
analysts (50 percent) and the media (64 percent),
but behind customers and clients (83 percent)
and business or alliance partners (84 percent).
Still, a significant 23 percent of CEOs have yet
to be convinced of the symbolic nature of their
role as far as employees are concerned.
On a personal level, three-quarters of PR practitioners
think their CEO “would say I understand
the business,” although only half “ask my opinion

communication with executives.
Our media efforts should develop
relationships, not simply convey
information. Remember,
communication is about the creation
of meaning and understanding,
not simply moving
information around.
It’s about authenticity
“Do you think the CEO is gesturing
correctly?” asked the vice
president of communications of
a multinational manufacturing
company, at a CEO rehearsal. I
looked at him incredulously
and replied, “This isn’t about

It’s about authenticity,
credibility and clarity. It’s
whether the organization’s various
constituents are able to

about the PR implications of future directions of
the business.” This may be because only 40 percent
of respondents reported that the PR function
reports directly to the CEO, and only 57 percent
said they attend meetings of the executive team
at least monthly.
The write-in comments to the survey revealed
that at least a few CEOs don’t yet recognize the
importance of executive communication with
employees. The respondents noted that:
n “The CEO doesn’t understand the strategic
importance of employee communications as it
relates to ROI for the business.”
n “The CEO puts very little weight on PR.
Considers it a cost.”
n “Demoted it [the function]. He does not understand
its value to the big picture and is focused
on cost savings at present.”
n “I do not meet with the CEO unless I’m preparing
him for a media interview.”
A comparison of the value that CEOs place on
functions within a company showed that 65 percent
of the respondents felt that their CEO valued
corporate affairs/PR at least as much as advertising;
41 percent felt the CEO valued PR at least as
much as sales; 57 percent, as much as marketing;
39 percent, as much as legal; and 50 percent, as
much as human resources.
—R.G. & L.R.

understand, believe and relate
to what the CEO is telling them.
Gesturing should be natural. If
it’s prompted by a script or some
other instruction, it’s not.” The
vice president shrugged; his boss
looked relieved.
Too many professional communicators
seem to believe that
business communication is more
about presentation—the event,
stagecraft, choreography, props
and other paraphernalia—than
about straightforward, genuine
human interaction. Effective
communication is how we all
successfully connect with and
engage others every day, taking
them on our personal journey of
ideas. But they only come along
if they trust us, if they feel we

Rodney Gray is with
Employee Communication &
Surveys in Sydney, Australia,
and has worked with the IABC
Research Foundation. He can
be reached at rodneygray1@
Larry Robertson is
principal of Robertson Burns,
based in Sydney, Australia.
He can be reached at larry@


Communication World I July-August 2005 27

Perhaps this is hardly surprising,
given that most senior
executives achieve their positions
as a result of their success
as managers and operators, not
as leaders and communicators.
They’re evaluated more on
business performance than on
personal behavior. So the focus
is inevitably on tasks before
people. Yet there’s a clear link
between outstanding organizational
performance and outstanding

Seizing opportunities
First and foremost, communicators
must be exemplars. We too
must walk the talk as communication
managers and as leaders.
While our content, systems and
tactics may be well regarded by
our executive colleagues, we
can’t neglect our personal communication
skills. We must seize
every opportunity to engage
spontaneously and meaningfully
in our own affable style with
others around the workplace.
We must resolve to defeat the
disinterest, even cynicism, so
prevalent within many organizations.
We’ll achieve this by not
just what we say but how we say
it; by listening actively and
showing we care; by picking up
on feedback and ensuring it’s
acknowledged in future communication
by the appropriate
executives; and, most important,
by revealing our own hopes,
feelings and imperfections,

demonstrating that we too are
human, sincere and vulnerable.
Second, communicators must
be advocates. To be successful,
we must earn the confidence
and respect of our executives by
proving our worth. Given that
they are primarily focused on
process and outcome, this
requires synchronizing our communication
strategy with the
organization’s business strategy
and our activities with the organization’s
operations. We need
to remind executives of the
correlation between winning
cultures and winning performances.
Every executive meeting
should end with clarity
about what’s to be communicated,
to whom, by whom,
when and how. Communication
should be kept short and simple,
whatever the medium.
Assure executives that repetition
is a good thing, however
familiar or even bored they
themselves may be with the subject
matter. Executives need to
talk regularly to employees about
the organization’s purpose, activities,
goals, points of difference,
customers, competitors, and how
their departments and their own
personal efforts contribute. If
employees aren’t clear about
these things, we and our executive
colleagues have work to do.
Third, communicators must
be coaches, working closely with
executives, not in isolation.
Remind them that they’re leaders
and role models—that effective
communication is a core
leadership quality and a two-way
process that is about informing
as well as influencing others. We
should demonstrate that we
want to help by giving executives
the confidence, motivation
and tools to be able to communicate
well. Have the courage to
keep them up to the mark. If
we’re reluctant or unable to do
so, we should bring in outside
experts. Search for opportunities,
formal and informal. Faceto-
face communication works

best, as do smaller events.
We need to explain to our
colleagues that in communication,
like most things in life,
what goes around comes around.
So executives have to recognize
that if they want to be listened
to, trusted and respected, they
have to reciprocate.

28 Communication World I July-August 2005