We’ve seen a rapid evolution in how executives approach internal and external communications over the last four years. But 2020 tested the fortitude of even the strongest and most capable communications programs. 2020 thrust executives into the spotlight again and again. Saying nothing was suspect. And circumstances demanded that executives speak up on issues affecting their employees, partners and customers. While some executives adeptly navigated the myriad crises – leading with empathy, putting employees first and choosing to elevate the right voices, others … well… they bombed. We also witnessed bold political engagement from some executives who ventured into the generally taboo subject during a national election year to mixed results.

So the big question is: What did we learn? And how do we apply those lessons to our 2021 communications strategies? One thing is clear: there is no putting the executive communications genie back in the bottle. Executives will continue to come under pressure to continue to address the issues that matter to customers and employees, and demand the same level of transparency that became the norm in such a tumultuous year. Successfully steering the ship through the predictable and the unpredictable events that await us in 2021 will require the following:

Do: Invest in a plan – Most CEOs found they needed to communicate more, more proactively and more transparently than ever as 2020 added COVID-19, supply chain challenges, Black Lives Matter protests, remote work, a contentious national election and more to their typical communications agendas. The tumult of 2020 shined a spotlight on how critically important it is to be prepared and have a well-thought-out strategy in place to refer to in times of crisis and stress. An approach that puts employees first, and aligns to a company’s stated and lived values, is key here. Backing up the discourse with action is what separates the most effective and memorable communications from the pack.

Do: Get buy-in – The decision by Expensify’s CEO to send an email to its entire customer base urging them to vote for now President-elect Joe Biden was made via a democratic process. Not only did the leadership team vote on whether or not to do it (majority ruled), but all employees, whether they supported or opposed the move, were encouraged to speak to the press without fear of repercussions. The move was a bold one, which will likely impact – both negatively and positively – the future buying and employment choices of many customers and employees. But Expensify also received a surge in interest from applicants who shared the companies’ values. While most organizations tread cautiously around controversial issues, those leaders that showed up best in 2020 shared a similar approach on generating buy-in – they were authentic to their values, and transparent about how decisions were being made internally and externally, helping stakeholders feel engaged and invested in company outcomes.

Don’t: Take undo credit – More than 6 in 10 globally, and 72% of Americans, feel CEOs have a responsibility to leverage their leadership to positively impact society. But McDonald’s CEO flubbed it when he suggested that McDonald’s has “probably created more Black millionaires” than any other company, taking credit for an unfounded possibility that made him appear tone deaf to the struggles of Black Business Owners and open McDonald’s to more scrutiny on the company’s active racial discrimination lawsuits brought by Black executives against the fast food chain. Companies don’t have to have perfect records to weigh in on important issues – but how they weigh in matters. How companies have failed and how that’s led them to new insights and actions on important issues can instill trust and goodwill among transparent brands. Take Anne Wojcicki, CEO of 23&Me who admitted “We’re part of the problem” when it comes to diversity in tech. The admission gave her the platform to communicate how the company intended to improve its DE&I efforts and hold itself accountable. It made 23&Me seem, while certainly imperfect, like it and its executives genuinely cared.

 The key to a successful 2021 executive communications strategy is simple – invest in a plan, get buy-in from key stakeholders, be transparent and stick to your values. By following these simple guidelines executive leaders can stay focused on efforts that positively impact their brand and their bottom lines.

Want to hear more from our executive comms and media strategy leaders? Join our webinar, Exec Comms 2021: Navigating a New Era, on January 26th. Our team will cover: the trends driving the media narrative into 2021, the increased scrutiny of tech’s influence, the broadening responsibility and pressure executives are now under to speak up, and the increasing consequences of getting it wrong. Who won? Who lost? And how should you change your executive comms strategies going forward?

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