Six Steps for Communicators to Build Trust With the C-Suite

shutterstock_193134299The most important place a PR pro works is, well, just about everywhere. Externally, the communicator is a brand’s image champion and advance scout, interacting with the public and monitoring social conversations to spot trends and issues before they develop into full-blown crises.

Inside the enterprise, internal communications help shape a company’s culture. Communicators serve as a brand’s eyes and ears, listening to employee interactions across departments and assessing corporate strengths and weaknesses.

And then there is a subset of internal communications, communicating up to the C-suite and CEO. As we said above, while every situation requires the communicator to do her/his best, off the record, PR pros will admit there are few more pressurized situations than dealing with the C-suite, particularly when the message you’re relaying is difficult.

What are the best ways to report to the C-suite and CEO? We asked Nisha Morris, executive director, communication, for Providence St. Joseph Health, a large, not-for-profit health group with 51 hospitals in seven states, for insight.

  1. Know Your Audience: This tenet of PR has a slightly different meaning here than what you might expect. While Morris encourages communicators to know the particulars of those in the C-suite (more on this below), that’s not the audience she means. “To be credible and have the confidence of the C-suite, you and your team must become experts” on your brand’s audience. “Know the stakeholders, the competitors…who your [brand’s] media allies and enemies are.” In short, be the last word on the “mission, message and audience.” This calls for extensive work, of course. “When the C-suite calls [PR pros] in, it’s important for them to trust our knowledge” of the communications landscape.
  1. Have an Executive Presence: As PR pros “we train our executives to have a presence” during media interviews, “for example, not to get flustered…we need to do the same” when interacting with the C-suite, she says. It’s not easy to learn to have the “it factor…command a room’s attention and leave them wanting more,” but it’s a worthy goal. By the way, a composed presence is required 24/7. “Even when I’m awoken at midnight for a crisis [call]…before I speak I always collect myself…take a deep breath and…slow it down.” When asked to come in at an odd hour "I'm still put together," she says. One other thing: “I always prepare [in advance by] mapping out every scenario in my head…playing out the conversation [in advance] and keeping your goal in mind…so you can…own that conversation”
  1. Build Your Brand: Again, this staple of PR and marketing has a slightly different meaning in this context. “We all know about how important it is to promote the brand,” Morris says, “but what about your personal brand? Step back and think about what you want your personal brand to represent. “Make a list. What do you want to be known for?” Morris wants to be known for being a credible expert who can be turned to for authoritative, uncompromising advice and insight, someone "who knows our particular field better than anyone."
  1. Focus on Helping, Not Selling: Provide a solution to the C-suite’s issue(s); this will build trust. A key here, she says, is listening carefully to what the issue is and what's being said about it.
  1. Connect Emotionally: This must be done extremely carefully, she advises, but when the time feels right, offer information about your family life to a C-suite member. “This gets them to do the same and it helps build a relationship and trust…we’re only going to build” these “with people we feel a connection with,” she says.
  1. Build Trust: This “is the most important piece of advice I can provide,” Morris says. The steps above are designed to build trust between communicators and the C-suite. “They trust that we have their backs…that we won’t put them in a situation that’s risky…that we’ll be objective, keeping in mind the overall objective of the organization without any personal interests…[and] we’ll keep emotion out of it.” Another tip: don’t pretend. “If you don’t know the answer, say so” and tell them you’ll follow up. Then do it.

You’ll know you’ve been successful in building trust, she says, when the C-suite asks you how to approach a media situation and seeks your advice, as opposed to being told, “I want you to do this…” This is when “PR truly has a seat at the table, when you’re influencing the discussion.”

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News. Follow him: @skarenstein