Traditional media still matters. Just ask retired US Army General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan. Disparaging comments he made about his civilian bosses and their management of the Afghan war in Rolling Stone forced his resignation, with President Obama “What was he thinking?”
“Hey wait, you’re with ‘I’ll Never Print This’ magazine right?” quipped Jon Stewart imitating McChrystal. The answer to both those questions is less important than the cautionary tale they offer Indian CEOs. The 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer suggests 78% of respondents in India trust Indian-based companies and a majority (58%) found CEOs to be credible spokespeople. .
These statistics could be threatened if India-based CEOs don’t clearly communicate their visions as they take their companies global.
The wild card for many emerging companies is that very often the only time media become aware of them or their CEOs is when there’s a crisis. The CEO is forced into the media spotlight and doesn’t know what to say or how to act. Without a thorough understanding of this constantly evolving media landscape, Indian executives risk losing ground, reputation and market share to their more media-savvy competitors. That’s because so much of current media attention is now focussed not only on what is being said, but how it’s being said. Tonality, authenticity and non-verbal gestures are being reported with as much detail as the words being spoken.
CEOs in India had a more feudal mindset and managed companies that made and sold products to the domestic market. Managing companies with multi-ethnic and multi-cultural employees is forcing them to take a more active role in promoting their organisations and that includes media outreach. This is where problems arise.
As is so often the case with senior executives, they’ve been trained to run companies and have invested time and effort into learning about business but shy away from the camera.
BP’s CEO Tony Hayward will be forever haunted by his gaffe to reporters about the status of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. On May 30th, Hayward told reporters, “No one wants this thing over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
Those six words created an outcry. Families of the 11 victims killed labeled Hayward insensitive and selfish. Reports of his going yachting a short time later added to the perceptions.
In a world where all companies are media companies and user-generated content can be as valuable as a front page headline, the Internet can provide new legs to any story.
Golfer Tiger Woods’ squeaky-clean image was forever tarnished by revelations of extramarital affairs. But his public apology only increased the doubts about his sincerity. If you read the text of his remarks, you’d be satisfied. But the deadpan wooden delivery just wasn’t congruent or aligned with what the sophisticated public expects in their celebrity apologies.
One YouTube poster wrote: “He is clearly not sorry. He had to look down at his paper to read: “I’m deeply sorry”.
In the past, if you wanted old media stories, you had to go to the library and plough through microfilm. That gave CEOs and their companies time to hide until the storm passed.
The Internet, and the interactivity it enables, is forcing CEOs to be more prominent and smarter at telling their stories – or face major brand damage.
CEOs could benefit from investing resources into gaining an understanding into how this convergence of traditional and new media can be better utilized to get their messages out. The ability for people to connect directly to each other and by-pass corporate communication departments means that the story will go on with or without the CEO’s participation.
The message to CEOs in India is to get familiar with this new media landscape, both as an opportunity and a threat. They also need to prepare themselves towards communicating their strengths more effectively.
Being a good spokesperson is not about ignoring questions and going to prepared answers. Listening, empathy, and understanding audience needs; these are the hallmarks of what executives need to pay attention to when honing their communication skills in markets like India.
Ray Rudowski is the Regional Director of Communication Training and Crisis Planning, Edelman Asia-Pacific.