No starry night with a “Van Gogh CEO”

“Beware the ‘Van Gogh CEO,’ the brilliant leader who becomes unhinged,” says public relations legend Chris Komisarjevsky.

The former worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller and CEO of Hill & Knowlton’s EMEA operations, Komisarjevsky recently sat down with Peppercomm founder/CEO Steve Cody for a fireside chat on how communications pros can work with corporate leaders to build trust, drive authenticity and, yes, maybe even make the world a better place.

Komisarjevsky has counseled countless C-suite executives during his almost 50 years working in strategic communications. One common factor in every era is the small (but vocal) group of toxic CEOs he called Van Gogh CEOs. Today’s most visible example is Elon Musk, who continues to alienate Twitter employees and users since buying the social media platform – and is likely making life a living hell for his comms team. All the while, he needs nothing but the very best communications professionals – inside and from the outside – to try to guide him as he moves forward – if he moves forward. As of this writing, everyone was waiting for Twitter to completely implode, in what could be the worst CEO-induced bankruptcy of all time.

But for every obviously troubling Van Gogh CEO, there are thousands of CEOs who simply seem to miss out on finding the right ways to build trust with stakeholders and communicate with those who have an impact on their business. That’s where today’s communications professionals come in. Peppercomm and Ragan Communications recently conducted a survey of nearly 400 corporate communicators. The results showed that only 18% of brands plan to speak out on any societal issues this quarter – be it climate change, voting rights or other topics.

Komisarjevsky, author of the new book Reputation First: Building a Crisis Communication Strategy, said he was not surprised this figure was so low given CEOs’ reluctance to speak out. But they are missing a huge opportunity to connect with their audiences. “Too many CEOs and corporations would rather approach these issues by saying that they’re not part of their business; we’re not going to get involved,” he explained. “But you can’t avoid it. Today more than ever, business is called upon to have a voice, and ‘tone at the top’ demands the CEO has not only a voice, but a strong one. It’s unavoidable that organizations need to get involved in issues because they have the power to affect change and the resources to do something about it. It’s not optional; it is expected.”

Customers demand it. Employees require it. Regulators want to know. And shareholders won’t sit idly by.

“There’s been a fundamental change in how people look at corporations. People want to hear from the CEO. People want to make sure where they work and what they buy from a brand are in sync with their own values,” he added. This is where communications leaders must step up, Komisarjevsky stressed. Protecting a company’s reputation and protecting the CEO from self-inflicted wounds are critical parts of the job.

Hesitating to “speak truth to power” is a huge mistake for comms pros when CEOs need reasoned counsel and guidance. “We need to be focused, forceful, knowledgeable and use our skills to speak to the C suite, working through their objections by focusing on their obligations,” he added.

As an example of what can go wrong, Komisarjevsky pointed to the reputational damage Adidas suffered while waiting weeks to cut ties with Ye, long after the public outcry against Ye’s hateful words on social media. Communicators need to be strong individuals of character when counseling CEOs to do right. Of late, we’ve seen bad decisions – denials of wrongdoing – that have come back to haunt CEOs, having an impact on their reputations and even hitting their own wallets. Look at Boeing and CBS over the past months.

“The comms person needs to be willing to take a stand, say what they believe in, support their recommendations with facts and explain what needs to be implemented in terms of doing the right thing. Like it or not, there are times when they have to risk being fired,” he said.

A world of opportunity for communications pros

To provide more effective and impactful counsel to the C-suite, Komisarjevsky underscored the need for comms leaders to recognize that “our business is one of ‘instinct and intellect.’” We need to understand and appreciate the intangibles in order to have a “feel” for what’s going on. Then we are in a position to do the research, gather ideas, pull together experiences from varied sources. With that as the background, we are able to share our best thinking and do it with conviction. Good decisions about communication strategy, about what to do, about what to say and about how to say it then naturally follow,” he said.

Doing the important work of communication professionals requires that they are well versed in all aspects of the business. It’s not enough to manage only strategic communications. “Comms pros need to understand the business of the business and the financials, along with operations. They should take it upon themselves to get additional training. Get an MBA or a law degree … or take courses at a business school,” Komisarjevsky – who earned his MBA at night early in his career – advised. “Understanding the underpinnings of corporations is essential, as is speaking the language. Otherwise, you can’t have the serious conversations with the CEO about the implications of what you’re doing, nor will you appreciate the full range of responsibilities that a CEO carries.”

All of these capabilities will help a communicator know how far to push a C-suite executive without pushing too far. The goal should be to encourage an executive to find her/his voice and build trust with key stakeholders by communicating in an authentic way – about issues they care about and that are also germane to your business. “You need to listen, hear, watch. Learn what buttons to push and what not to push. With time you learn whether or not to continue to push or go in a different direction.”

Ideally for a comms leader, this is part of a strategy to urge C-level execs to engage with audiences in ways that align with what they need to see and hear today: empathy, trustworthiness, consistency and a sense that they listen to and care about their employees, customers, business partners and others. “To be genuine, CEOs must be seen and observed as being credible. Thus, they have a responsibility to demonstrate their personal commitments,” Komisarjevsky said. “Whatever you can do to let your hair down and show people what you are like, what you believe in and what you think is important are ways to show how committed you are. Others come to understand and believe because you believe.”

Each CEO has an enormous opportunity to engage with others and, in the process, engender trust. That kind of outreach – inquiring about others and what’s important to them – goes a long way to build rapport and strengthen relationships. “As a CEO, you need to engage with others deep in the organization. Employees are among your most important groups. They shape the views of others. They see what’s going on. People ask them for their opinions. They are powerful,” Komisarjevsky said. “Respect them and encourage them to be part of a solution where their ideas and input are valued. That starts at the top.”

Final thoughts

Komisarjevsky and Cody held their discussion the day before Veterans Day. This gave Cody a chance to ask Komisarjevsky about his experience in the U.S. Army. Komisarjevsky was a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Cody queried him on what lessons he learned while flying troops in a combat zone that can be applied to business leadership. “You learn to separate what’s important and what’s not. What to focus on and not get distracted,” he replied. “How to keep your cool and focus, in order to provide calm and clear guidance to the people who work with you. There’s also a sense of responsibility that comes with that job. In Vietnam, each time I lifted the collective to take off, I had 11 or more soldiers in the helicopter whose lives depended on me and what I did. You end up with a very strong sense of responsibility for the people who depend on you, your talents and your skills. Every day, it is a weight you carry…and willingly.”