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Are you being understood?

Interview with Chris Owen, Director of M&C Saatchi PR on the importance of ensuring every communication from the top is understood.


As the CEO of the business, you are the most public figurehead, responsible for driving a positive perception of the operation through thick and thin. You’re an experienced hand in this regard, taking the initiative and consistently saying the right thing, at the right time, to the right media, influencers, and stakeholders in the business – or at least, you should be…

Let’s not forget what happens when you don’t, and ‘do a Ratner’!

Whilst not everyone around the boardroom table will be an external facing influencer, they are fundamentally your internal channels to the wider business, and they need to lead by example and be consistent in taking your vision beyond the boardroom. If they’re not singing from the same hymn sheet, your business won’t be either, and this can have a huge impact on company performance.

If you consider the hierarchy beyond the board, the potential for the core ethos of your business to be dislocated exacerbates; as messages are taken out wider and further, the potential for them to be diluted or disrupted grows. Ensuring everyone around your boardroom table buys in 100% to the plans of the business, the reasons behind them, and the core strategic goal is the first step – communicating it clearly is the second, so they can be your mouthpieces across the business.

In short, leadership starts at the top – but so does culture. You can’t behave differently to others in areas of responsibility from an ivory tower and then complain of a disjointed, disenchanted, fractious workforce. For those of a footballing bent, you only need look at how Jose Mourinho divides opinion to see this in action; he took a Premiership winning team and turned them into a laboured mid-table, acrimoniously split collection of individuals. No-one wanted to be part of such a toxic atmosphere, and Mourinho ultimately paid for it with the loss of his job – albeit with a hefty pay-off, and a subsequent reappearance at Manchester United!

The point is an important one – Mourinho divided the dressing room, and the fans turned against him and some of the players too. People are loyal, and the same can be said within a business.

Compare this example to that of Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz who famously used the August 2015 news of the ‘flash crash’ to send a company-wide memo to employees asking them to show special consideration for their customers on what would have been a depressing day for many. In doing this, he showed not only that he was on top of what was going on in the real world and that he knew his customers, but that he was open to office-wide communication. It showed he knew what the people on the ground in Starbuck’s outlets would be facing, and – critically – let them know he knew. It also sends an example to individual regional managers to copy his example.

This customer-first approach is what makes a business. In this example, Schultz instilled the values from the top to the bottom – and in doing so made the business stronger, by being appreciative of its customers.

Starting this chain at the top of the business day in, day out, is critical to success. Listen to the board’s feedback and agree on a consistent external narrative – it will filter down throughout the business. It’s an approach echoed here at M&C Saatchi PR. We echo the Group’s approach of ‘Brutal Simplicity of Thought’ – an ethos established by Maurice Saatchi, our founder. ‘Brutal simplicity’ is the underpinning strategy to all our work, and exhorts that it is easier to complicate than simplify, but that the simplest stories resonate faster with an audience, and last longer in the mind. Jargon doesn’t prick the grey matter quite like simple, clear narrative, and it’s easily forgotten and confused – so don’t use it. It’s an approach taken by Maurice, and it’s an approach taken by our newest starters straight from University – a consistency which makes us a stronger agency as a result.

That the CEO is the most critical voice of the company isn’t in doubt, but if you don’t communicate clearly to your Board, in a manner they can take out wider and concisely to the whole enterprise, then your time is wasted. You need to be understood, and you need to be consistent.


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