Executive communication is literally a science—and it’s fascinating

Never start a conversation with these three words: social science research. The “why” is obvious. What’s not so obvious are the insights and implications uncovered by academic study in the field of communication. Findings like the ones below are precisely the kind of insights that can make for significant and lasting improvement in your executive communication efforts.


Insight 1

Demand for transparency requires access to, and open dialogue about, the insights and vision of corporate leaders.

Implication for executive communication

Executive platforms must account for the strong desire of followers to understand the company vision, supporting strategy, and rationale behind the strategy. Part of understanding comes from the belief that an employee, as an example, can access the thought process of leaders and even contribute to its development. However, it’s not enough to simply invite and incorporate employee input. Before many employees will open up and take what some perceive as a risk, they need to see leaders as good-natured role models who are visible, social and approachable. This is a challenge that communication can solve, and makes for employees who understand company direction, trust in leadership, and advocate for plans in place.

Insight 2

Over 80 percent of CEOs surveyed believe that social media is an important platform for them to deepen connections with customers, employees and investors.

Implication for executive communication

Communication science research is consumed by terms like “power distance” and “symmetrical communications.” Fortunately, these concepts aren’t nearly as complex as they may seem and, when put into practice, can dramatically enhance the perceived character and competence of the CEO.  

First, power distance, which is a way to explain the handling of differences between unequal parties. In this case, we’re talking about the status inequality between a CEO and employees. Social media can reduce the power distance between CEOs and audiences like employees. It can take the image of an ivory tower executive and build a story around the person. The CEO story can be transformed from that of someone who’s distant and intimidating, to one who’s welcoming and good natured. Social media are not only highly useful toward this end, but cost-effective as well.

Second is symmetrical communication. In other words, two-way communication. Social media are uniquely suited to two-way communication and can paint the CEO as accessible, and even sociable. According to a 2012 Weber Shandwick report, “a CEO’s social media presence and activeness are also believed to showcase innovativeness and enhance their company’s image and reputation.”

Think of it this way. The R&D budget is just one of many ways to demonstrate the importance of innovation to a company and its culture. Companies should match the innovation within the business to the perceived innovation as viewed by investors, employees, and other key audiences. Social media are a critical element. See Sir Richard Branson as a shining example of how to use social media as an innovative way to boost affinity toward the CEO.

Insight 3

“Parasocial interaction,” and its principles, is the difference between a CEO who is relatable and creates a positive corporate culture and one whose stakeholders flee en masse.

Implication for executive communication

Parasocial interaction explains the ways in which audiences like employees develop relationships with media being consumed. For the sake of this conversation, think of media as communication from the CEO. When executed well, the media (i.e., communication from the CEO) creates a defined persona and feelings of being in a reciprocal relationship with the CEO, or what in these modern times we refer to as the chief engagement officer.

A reciprocal relationship is exactly that–one in which two parties understand each other and are more likely to return favors. This is a vast oversimplification, but as human beings, we’re much more likely to take some action requested by someone we know, like and respect. Parasocial interaction describes this phenomenon. If your communication team isn’t up on the science behind their discipline, turn them onto it and see how it benefits your executive communication efforts. You’ll also have at your disposal a more confident and better equipped communications partner–a partner who can better help you get the business outcomes you’re looking for. Outcomes, after all, are the CEO’s charge and should be supported by all communication partners.

Written by Aaron Zaslofsky for CW Magazine.

Aaron Zaslofsky is the founder and principal of Wheelhouse Communications, which works with clients in areas like employee engagement, organizational culture and alignment, articulating company vision and strategy, and executive brand development. Aaron was previously director of communications at Ameriprise Financial. Prior to this, he was strategy and communications manager at McDonald’s USA in Boston and Minneapolis, where he oversaw all aspects of communications for two US$2 billion business units.

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