In presidential politics, a question is debated among insiders about any potential candidate: Does candidate X see a president when he or she looks in the mirror?
The question is meant to gauge the battle readiness of a prospective president.
A variation can be asked of PR pros. When we look in the mirror, what do we see? PR practitioners should see themselves as a CEO.
Marketplace pressures are forcing senior management to spend less time being poster children for visionary leadership and more time as the kings and queens of short-term gain. Communicators are uniquely positioned to "channel" the CEO by thoroughly understanding his or her vision, developing a deep knowledge of business operations, and using this information to craft recommendations, make decisions, and communicate with key audiences.
Increasingly, those audiences include not just senior management, but influencers who are not part of the regular leadership meetings. Burson-Marsteller found that since 2000, nearly 50% of the top leadership at Fortune 1,000 companies has changed. Knowing the influencers, understanding their views, being an honest partner, and negotiating with/navigating on their level are practices communicators are called upon to do - sometimes even better than CEOs.
Winston Churchill once said: "I see it said that leaders should keep their ear to the ground. All I can say is that the British nation will find it very hard to look up to leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture." It's amazing that many in senior management still reflect his skepticism, especially given the many organizational tragedies owing to leaders not keeping the pulse of their audiences (New York Stock Exchange/Dick Grasso, Enron, Sen. John Kerry). Forward-thinking leadership understands the power of responsiveness, reputation, and image as differentiators in the marketplace. These all are - or should be - strengths of communicators as CEO.
None of this is easy. Seeing oneself as a CEO means being able to think first like a business unit director and then as a reputation management expert. It's like leading the United Nations. There are many presidents with different priorities. And not everyone is on the CEO's side.
A recent Harris Interactive/PRSA Foundation study found that business leaders (84%) are assigning more value to PR. As entities go through intense periods of change, top management benefits most from communicators thinking as CEOs. For communicators, this is a grand opportunity to move beyond being seen as solely media relations specialists or employee communications gurus.
Lisa Davis is a consultant and former communications director for AARP. Each month, she'll look at a different aspect of counseling senior management from an in-house viewpoint. E-mail her at email@example.com.