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Giving the CEO message a makeover: people stopped reading your publication's "letter from the CEO" ages ago. Don't kill the column--make it better.

By doing just one thing, you can turn the CEO column from a space-wasting bore into a dynamic communication tool. And that one thing is: make the column interactive.

Let us revisit that old staple of employee communication vehicles, the CEO column.

Officially, this feature might be called "The Executive Message" or "Letter from Leadership." Unofficially, though, it is known as "The Soapbox Sermon from Hell," "One Guy's Stupid Opinion" and "The Page that Nobody Ever Reads."

You've all seen these columns. They are almost always on page 2 of your corporate publication, and they all have the same three elements:

1. The lousy executive photo. This is the mug shot of the executive, and it is always in the left-hand comer of the page. (To be fair, though, some very daring editors have been known to take a flying leap of creativity and put the picture in the right-hand corner! Those editors, of course, were promptly fired for straying too far outside the corporate box.)

The photo is always cropped at the second button of the CEO's starched white shirt--a technique known in corporate design school as "The CEO Crop." It is standard in all executive photos.

The expression on the CEO's face is always the same too. He is trying his best to look serious and business-focused, in order to inspire confidence in employees. But he's also trying to look friendly and approachable, so he doesn't come across as mean. The result is that he looks like he is suffering from some kind of gastric disturbance of horrific proportions.

2. The lousy headline. It's hard to write a headline for a CEO column, because headlines are supposed to reveal the main news nugget of the story, and most CEO columns are embarrassingly bereft of news nuggets. That's why you end up with headlines like "Synergy!"

[Note to all editors: There should be an electrical wire connected to your exclamation point key, and every time you're tempted to use it, you should be shocked back into your senses. Unless there is really something to get excited about--say, "CEO Gets Out of Jail!"--save your exclamation points for your private e-mails.]

3. The lousy language itself. I'm convinced that there is a software program out there called "CEO Column." All any corporate editor has to do is plug in the name of the company, and the program will spit out a ready-made, generic column with sentences like this:

"As we proactively ramp up our core competencies and shift paradigms in order to transition to a world-class organization, [Your Company Name Here] remains committed to one thing: Employees are still our greatest asset."

It's not hopeless

With everything I've written so far, improving the CEO column might seem impossible. But it's not. You can do a great CEO column. In fact, by doing just one thing, you can turn the CEO column from a space-wasting bore into a dynamic communication tool. And that one thing is: Make the column interactive. Make it a conversation with employees instead of a one-way speech. Have the executive talk with employees, not to them.

Instead of forcing the CEO to come up with 800 words on a single boring topic for every issue, use the space to answer employee questions. Here's a simple three-step process:

Step 1: Sell the CEO on the idea.

This won't be as hard as you think. Here is your pitch:

"Sir, rather than force you to come up with a brand-new topic for your column every month, I've got a better idea. Why don't you let me gather some of the burning questions employees 'have, and we'll use the space to answer them? It will be a lot less work for you, and the employees will really appreciate the interaction."

He'll say yes, and before you know it, you'll have an ongoing town hall meeting with employees in every single issue of your publication.

(If the CEO says no because he is really afraid of the questions employees will ask, hang in here with me--we deal with that problem in Step 3.)

Step 2: You write the answers.

You want the column to read like a relaxed, informal conversation with the CEO. It won't have that feeling if you let him write the answers, because chief executives tend to stiffen up when they write. (See "Avoid 'Homicide Detective Syndrome,'" left). Instead, bring (or e-mail) the top two or three questions to the CEO, get his answers, and then rewrite the heck out of them so that he sounds like a human being instead of a corporate robot.

Step 3: Don't be afraid to have the CEO say, "I don't know."

Too many CEOs think they have to be like the Oracle at Delphi--all-seeing, all-knowing. There's nothing wrong with the CEO admitting that he doesn't have all the answers.

One of my favorite passages from any CEO column ever was in a publication for a company that was about to go through some layoffs. In this situation, most CEOs clam up until the layoffs actually occur, because they want to wait until everything is in place.

But the smart thing to do is to get out in front of the situation, which is what this CEO did. Here's one of his quotes from the column:

"This is a frustrating time for [the company's] employees who are unsure of their future with the company. It will be difficult for those who leave the organization. We know that. We also know that there are no words that will ease the emotional and financial pain. The best we can say is that we will do everything we can to help with the transition."

That is brilliant communication. And do you know what happens when the CEO deals with tough issues head-on, sometimes admits he doesn't have all the answers, and treats employees like adults?

That's right. People will start reading the column.

Avoid 'Homicide Detective Syndrome'

My father was a homicide detective on Chicago's South Side for 35 years. So I grew up around a lot of cops.

One thing about cops: They sound like regular guys you could meet at any tavern in any big city in the world.

But when cops get interviewed on TV, they take on a different persona. They stiffen up. They get more formal. They start using phrases they would never use at home, such as, "We apprehended the alleged perpetrator." At home, that phrase would be, "We caught the dirtbag."

I call this "Homicide Detective Syndrome." I once asked my dad why cops sound so different on TV, and he said, "I don't know--that's just how cops talk when they're being official."

CEOs and other corporate executives have the same problem. They sound a lot different when they're being "official."

Believe me, when a CEO goes home at the end of the day, he doesn't say to his wife, "Honey, as we are about to transition from the dinner table to the bedroom, we need to proactively reassess your core competencies, and maybe shift some paradigms, because I have some important issues that need to be reconciled if we want to continue to have a world-class marriage."

No, it's only when they're being "official" that they stiffen up and assault the English language.

So don't let them do it. Rewrite them. Make them sound as if they're sitting in a bar having a drink, talking about the company. Your readers will notice the difference immediately.

--S.C.
COPYRIGHT 2005 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:editor's angle
Author:Crescenzo, Steve
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
Words:1250
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