Just the two of us

The CEO/communications director relationship detemines almost every aspect of a company’s health


The CEO is often the public face of an organisation, especially in difficult periods. Their every comment is analysed in minute detail, making the choice of words and phrases crucial. It is often the communication director’s job to put these words and phrases in the mouth of the CEO, to let him express the firm’s business decisions in a language that will appeal to all stakeholders. This requires a deep level of trust between the two – after all, the communication director is the person who, other than the CEO him/herself, is most responsible for the CEO’s internal and external reputation. Because of this, it demands a comprehensive and comfortable working relationship between the two. Without this level of trust and understanding, the CEO’s messages risk becoming contradictory and discredited. This can damage the company in the eyes of the media, shareholders, and the public, and can ultimately result in lower performance. It is therefore of the utmost importance that a CEO and their communication director can work together, as a team, to consistently deliver the company’s messages in the best possible manner.

A match made in heaven

Working with a CEO on their presence in the media is one of the more direct and visible avenues for a communication director to exercise their abilities. This is a chance to prove your value with immediate impact, with results that are plain to see and increasingly easy to monitor, thanks to CEO stockwatch, stock prices, press coverage and so on. Florian Martius, director of communications and public relations at Sanofi Pasteur MD, guesses that “about 20 per cent” of his work is devoted to improving his general manager’s personal standing with stakeholders and the media – a sizeable chunk of time. A CEO may not have much experience in dealing with communications – he or she may come from an engineering background, or be a financial wizard; in other words, they may have not finessed their interpersonal or media skills. While it may be unrealistic to expect every CEO to have animal magnetism as part of his or her natural personality, this, says Martius, “has a great influence. It’s too often the soft skills that define if a meeting with media people is a success or not.” Media training and a clearly defined communications strategy are ways to help CEOs form the right approach to positioning themselves.

Modelling for success

If a situation arises where a new CEO’s personality is clearly going to be problematic in future situations, there are certain things a communication director can do to help. Caroline Hempstead, vice president for corporate communications at AstraZeneca UK, believes that it is possible to model communications in this way. “I think that it is crucial to model the style and tone of any communications – external or internal – to suit the preferences and characteristics of the CEO,” she says. “The challenge is to find the environment and medium that suits your CEO and builds on their strengths.” However, attempting to completely rebuild a CEO’s personality is not a good idea, and the ruse will most likely be seen through straight away by most people.

Other than personally positioning the CEO and establishing him or her to a greater or lesser extent as a significant media presence, the relationship between the communication director and the CEO relationship covers a range of important functions. The communication director must analyse problems, evaluate risks and propose solutions to the CEO, who must then select the way forward and the timing; all this done in discussion. Vladimir Budinsky, communication and strategy director at Severoceske Doly, the largest mining company in the Czech Republic, and part of the Cez group, delineates the responsibilities of the two by saying: “The CEO’s guidance is the target and the timing; the communication director’s authority is the tactics, resources and operations.”

An element of trust

In order to arrive at this balance of responsibilities, the CEO must trust the communication director. Budinsky explains: “The key factor for the relationship between CEO and communication director is joint understanding and trust. In this area, I must say that my CEO is the best I have ever had. My previous experience has shown that without such trust and joint opinion on issues, the long term collaboration is not possible.”

However, these so-called ‘soft skills’ are no substitute for a communication director’s thorough understanding of the company’s business in order to successfully position a CEO. If you want your communication department fully integrated as a strategically important function within the company, a firm grasp is vital. “A modern, state-of-the-art communication approach needs the full understanding of the company’s profile, strategies and products,” Florian Martius says. “The level of detail might be defined by the topic. But to position their CEO, the communicator needs to know his/her agenda. How else can I give the right support or anticipate possible reactions or issues?”

Targeting high-level stakeholders

At Severoceske Doly, the strategy is to position the CEO to high level stakeholders in order to secure the difficult and lengthy process of investment – mining technology is very expensive and the investment period is usually 40 years. The communication director is responsible for the crucial work of winning public acceptance for its mining operations, which must be managed on a daily basis. The CEO, meanwhile, is most strategically employed focusing on other stakeholders, as Vladimir Budinsky explains: “We focus on the local and the regional relationships first, and then we focus on villages and cities located in the neighbourhood of our mines. Local press and media are important as well. All this is primarily the role of communication director; the CEO focuses on the high ranked key decision makers in the parliament and the central government as well as on the strategic communication within the group.”

The balance of power

The balance of power in this complicated relationship is not clearly defined. On the basis of a mutually agreed set of strategies and priorities, the communication director operates with an autonomy that may be the envy of other departmental heads. That, at least, is the picture painted by Vladimir Budinsky: “I have lot of freedom as we have a mutual understanding of strategy and priorities with the CEO,” he says. “We mostly agree on all aspects of communication of the company policy. I act independently. However, before any important action I inform the CEO. In 95 per cent of cases, I receive the green light.”

Ultimately, any business decisions made by the company are the CEO’s to make, and the best laid plans of the communications team count for nothing if the CEO decides to override their carefully devised strategies. Like the majority of human beings, CEOs do not always do what they are told. In Florian Martius’ experience, this can be due to a number of factors. “It might be the need to react to a new situation without the chance to a prior discussion,” he says. “It might be the absence of inerrability of the communicator or the ‘I know better syndrome’, but when you hear the ‘I should have acted like you told me’ sentence, you realise that you are on the right track.”

Caroline Hempstead, on the other hand, disagrees with this point of view, saying that “a smart CEO will be as interested in how decisions will be perceived, as the decisions themselves.”

Bringing in a new CEO

A communication director should be responsible for communicating a leader’s identity, core business principles and relevant experience that will drive the company’s success. In the case of a new CEO, it will not be until hard results can be reported, usually the first earnings period after the CEO’s arrival.

A new CEO brings the possibility for change in the organisational structure, but it will take time for anticipated changes to become clear, and stakeholders to familiarise with this unknown quantity and attendant new strategies. However, it is also important to realise that the opposite is also true – a CEO needs time to get to grips with the complexities of their new company. The situation is exacerbated by the flurry of media interest that normally comes with a changeover at the top, and the constant requests to communicators for interviews with the CEO. And especially with a new CEO, there is a ticking, though intangible, deadline: the honeymoon period is soon over, and analysts are ever ready to see things go off the rails. This is human nature.

The amount of time allowed for this, and rigorousness of the situation, will depend on the specific circumstances surrounding the new CEO’s introduction: are they replacing a long standing and beloved CEO, are they intimately familiar with the company already, is the company in robust health, or should it be handled with care? A communication director can and should be readily available to answer these questions when called upon, and can also be a fountain of knowledge for an incoming CEO.

Out with the old 

The situation is slightly different when the CEO is being promoted from a position within the same company. Here, they will be familiar with the situation the company is in to a far greater extent, and will consequently be able to speak confidently for themselves sooner. Of course, the communication director is still a vital link in between the outgoing and incoming executives, even if the new CEO has been groomed for the job by their predecessor.

Digital communications

A highly efficient and relatively new tool for communication directors in helping position CEOs comes in the form of social media. Web 2.0 is taking the world of consumers by storm, but it can also be a great way of promoting a company’s point of view – often directly to customers. CEOs at many top firms are now more directly connected to their consumer base than ever before, through blogs, web chats, and more.

Caroline Hempstead agrees that social media offers possibilities in this area: “Web 2.0 offers a world of possibilities for CEOs who understand and feel at home in the digital environment,” she says. “It can be a channel to engage directly with customers, employees and other stakeholders; a channel that thrives on authentic, personalised communications; and one that offers speed and flexibility.”

Social media can be an effective internal communications tool, providing employees with far greater access to their executives. Done well, employee blog spaces can have the effect of bringing the CEO closer to his or her workers. But, as Hempstead is quick to point out, the move to Web 2.0 must seem like a genuine one. “To be successful in this environment, the CEO needs to be personally credible in the digital space,” she says. “It is not for everyone in my view.” The communication director can be vital in implementing social media initiatives, but ultimately it must be the CEOs themselves who are participating. A communications team member answering questions put to the CEO will, at best, not go down well. Of course, finding enough time for a CEO to regularly sit down and write personal messages to workers can be tricky.

One other problem with social media is its rapid proliferation. There are now so many channels available that cutting through the mess to deliver a company’s message can be tricky. In this regard, communication directors must work together with CEOs to distinguish where their time and efforts are best placed, and, more importantly, what their message will be.


There is only enough space here to scratch the surface of a relationship fundamental to the performance of an organisation. As it is increasingly recognised that the place of the communications function is at the centre of the company, more and more attention will inevitably be paid to the complicated ties that bind together the CEO and the communication director.