How PR teams make themselves heard at the top table

Do you speak CEO? Learning the language of the C-suite could be seriously good for your comms, says Con Franklin, managing director at Ketchum Health

PR teams sometimes feel they’re below the radar of CEOs, CFOs, and anyone else with a ‘C’ at the start of their job title – but for Con Franklin of Ketchum Health, that’s a missed opportunity. He kicked off PRWeek’s 2020 PharmaComms conference by exploring how PR professionals can elevate their reputation at the highest levels of the business.

As Franklin argues, earning the recognition of the C-suite not only means that every piece of advice you give is more likely to have an impact on the business, but also allows you to harness the influence of the big bosses: "CEOs are powerful media magnets – they have access to press platforms that the day-to-day communicators don’t necessarily have," he says. 

How to talk about brands to the C-suite

Franklin believes pharma industry communicators often get it wrong when cascading information upwards to top-level staff: "We’re always talking about brand in terms of sales performance, but are we framing it in the context of the overall commercial plans of the business?" he says. "And are we presenting what’s in the pipeline in interesting ways that are directly relevant to the most senior people?"

He believes the industry is getting better at grabbing the C-suite’s attention. "I’ve seen a lot more work going into data visualisation," he says. "Rather than presenting the C-suite with, say, a list of publications we’re targeting, we’re bringing that information to life in interesting ways – and giving them content they can use in their own investor presentations." 

Your CEO is a ‘shop window’ for the business – make sure you’re both speaking the same language

Sometimes it can feel like brand communicators and the C-suite speak different languages. "It’s an interesting exercise to go back to communication assets you’ve created over the past year and ask: ‘is this talking about success in the way that the C-suite understands it?’" says Franklin. "Often we see a real disconnect between the way the CEO is talking about a product and how we’d like to communicate it." 

Aligning how marketers and communicators talk about a product with what the C-suite is saying about it to investors and the press is a beautiful thing, according to Franklin. "You start to see a story emerge that is consistent across all the external moments when the business is talking."

He advises fellow PRs to take note of the current trend for humanising pharma brands and put individuals, such as patients or employees, at the heart of the stories they’re telling. As the ‘human face’ of a business, CEOs can also be a powerful asset in this respect.

"Over the past weeks, we’ve seen the Sanofi, J&J and Merck CEOs talking publicly about the ongoing threat of the coronavirus and how the industry is playing its part in the development of a vaccine," Franklin says. "That’s a really nice execution: using your C-suite people to show that, as an industry, we have a part to play in challenging what the WHO now regards as a global health emergency."

Understand what brand success looks like to the C-suite

Comms teams and top-level staff often have different ideas about what constitutes brand success. Many PRs still default to volume-based metrics when assessing the value their work brings to the business – but that might not be how your CEO measures achievement, warns Franklin. "We’re keen to communicate how many tweets we got out or how many LinkedIn posts we authored, but actually, we need to measure the social impact of the work we’re doing."

That means showing you can listen as well as shout. "There’s a constant dialogue being played out on social channels about the benefits of specific products, or the unmet need in a therapeutic category," Franklin points out. "What the C-suite seems to be interested in now is how we’re influencing those existing conversations, rather than how loud we are."

Ask yourself: what’s keeping the CEO up at night?

The C-suite are always looking at the big picture, so make sure you’re also thinking about comms activity in the context of wider commercial planning. For Franklin, that means showing up well informed to top-level meetings: "Do we truly understand what our brand does (and what it doesn’t) that could materially impact the fortunes of the business? Do we know how to communicate to CEOs why the business should invest further in a brand? And are we placing the brand in the wider content of geopolitics, of ongoing regulatory challenges, of individual markets? Because these are things CEOs and CFOs worry about all the time," he adds.

But if understanding the issues CEOs are losing sleep over is important, then so is keeping them engaged. It’s not easy to get a seat at the top table, so if you do, be prepared to capture their imagination: "Do we have the big idea that will resonate not just with our marketing peers, but with the C-suite as well? Every CFO and CEO I’ve talked over the last few years wants their business to do something different and move the communications agenda forward." 

Get them on board – and keep their attention

To secure the C-suite’s participation in comms, ask yourself these questions, says Franklin: "Firstly, is the communication that we want the CEO to do going to make them look good in the external environment? Does it make them feel good about the contribution they’re making? And does it actually entertain them?" 

If you want to elevate your reputation at the highest level, you should make the most of opportunities to capture their attention, and ensure the experience is a positive one: "On occasions when you interact with your C-suite, are you really putting communications on the map – while providing a level of entertainment around the brand, as well?"