Several Leaders Got Themselves in Trouble for Communication Blunders Last Year — Here's How You Can Avoid Becoming One of Them. From relying too heavily on AI to not expecting the unexpected, here's how to communicate effectively as a leader in the year ahead — and avoid needless controversy in the process.
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Words matter in leadership. Remember when the CEO of furniture giant MillerKnoll was lambasted for her "pity city" comments in a town hall last spring? What about the CEO of Carta, who was caught in a PR crisis after sending an ill-advised email about internal drama? More than a quarter of a company's market value is directly based on its reputation, and how executives choose to communicate with both their teams and wider audiences is a key factor in determining that trust.
It's easy to understand how blunders can occur. After all, the leadership communications landscape is complex. It's also changing fast. In the last year, there's been a proliferation of new tools and platforms available to leaders to communicate. AI continues to explode, while LinkedIn, hit the coveted one billion-member mark, signaling its dominance in the business communications landscape. At the same time, expectations around how leaders communicate are shifting as well: In-person interactions carry greater weight — especially in the hybrid work era— and changes in the political landscape mean being extra careful about how and when to speak.
Confusing? Yes. But, it doesn't have to be. In 2024, intentionality, authenticity and creating value are still at the forefront of executive communications, but leaders will have to adapt the ways they reach their audiences. Here's how they can avoid being left behind (or messing up) in 2024.
Stop shooting from the hip
The past five years have seen the heyday of the activist executive. At the first sign of a major news story, CEOs have been advised — and in some cases obliged — to broadcast their opinions about hot-topic issues and to position their companies behind them, even when it has had little to do with their business goals. Those days are over.
Doing what's right is important and that includes standing up for what you believe, but as the world becomes more polarized and individuals are increasingly entrenched in their views, shooting from the hip on political issues can often hurt executives and their companies more than it helps.
In an environment where Target has been forced to pull Pride-themed merchandise from its stores after customer blowback or a CEO of one of the most famous tech conferences resigns over political commentary, the risk of taking a stance can often outweigh the reward. So unless you've based your company around a particular ideology and built that into your values (see Patagonia's position on the climate), CEO activism can come off as both inauthentic and ill-advised.
Don't get lazy with AI
Let's be real: ChatGPT represents a fantastic opportunity for executive communications. Drafting content in seconds from a few simple prompts can introduce incredible efficiency for busy CEOs, but using it without judicious editing can open you up to criticism.
Leadership comms is personal. It's your direct line to tell both employees and your wider audience about your vision and values — readers are looking for your unique thoughts, and above all, your humanity. Failing to personalize your ChatGPT-written content is obvious: It won't fit with your wider personal brand — and worse, it will look like everyone else's.
As a rule of thumb, it's fine to use the tool for routine, admin-related comms. But when your writing is the product, you need to be more careful. This is also true when pitching your content to editors, whose publications may have strict rules around when AI can be used and how it must be declared.
Don't spread yourself thin on social
Executives have a lot of choices when it comes to what channels they use. Sharing visual content on Instagram, hopping on TikTok video trends and commenting in real-time on X feeds all provide access to new audiences. So where to double down?
Designed from the get-go for business networking, LinkedIn is the natural home for company-related communications. As the platform continues to roll out new features, even top editors of major publications like Amanda Perialli from Business Insider and Jessica Lessin at the Information are using it to launch newsletters, cementing LinkedIn as a home for active industry conversations.
LinkedIn also lends itself to leadership content. Its algorithm validates executives who drill down into a specific niche and can provide valuable insights to others, highlighting their contributions through the Top Voices program. Thought leaders who are clear on their area of expertise are rewarded, offering a legitimacy that helps reach key stakeholders, including potential funders. LinkedIn hit one billion users in 2023, and you should grow with it.
Don't "Zoom it in"
With hybrid arrangements still on the rise in the U.S., there's a good chance your company is offering a mix of in-office and remote work. And for those who have spent the past three years enjoying their autonomy, a return-to-office adjustment can be a tough sell.
The way leaders approach bringing employees back to the workplace requires intentional communication. If you're asking team members to be in the office a few days a week, it's important to show your face when you can too. In-person meetings and coffees carry greater weight after years of compulsory Zoom calls, and leveraging that time to connect with your teams can pay dividends for company retention.
For employees you can only reach digitally, it's vital that your in-person messaging matches your digital footprint, and it's worth setting up a deliberate internal strategy to share more about your values and vision. Our clients have told us that prospective employees have been swayed to apply to their company because they're excited about the CEO's content, so don't ignore the importance of intentionality around executive presence — both in-person and online.
Don't overlook the "unprecedented"
Given the events of the past year alone, leaders should expect the unexpected. Gone are the days of global stability and a gently rising stock market — and as this year's IPO drought has proved, leaders have to be ready for any eventuality.
In "unprecedented times," the market rewards steady leadership, and strong crisis communications are key. While it's only possible to prepare so much in advance, it's important to have some process in place. Does your company have a policy on posting about current events or issues? Do you have a way to triage questions around a topic you'd rather not discuss? Make sure you have a communications team that can move quickly when catastrophe strikes, and build guidelines in advance for how you talk to your workforce and customers.
Leaders face a dilemma in 2024. There have never been more ways to publish content, but there have also never been as many challenges. While the essence of executive communications remains the same — intentionality, authenticity and value creation are your north stars — new tools and platforms introduce fresh potential and risks. When in doubt, the first port of call is building a strong relationship with your internal comms team or leveraging an outside partner. It's arguably never been a tougher time to manage a company, and that means it's never been more important to double down on your executive comms strategy.