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Richard Price
| 11TH JUN 2024

Zeno Thinks: Effective leadership comms during a time of social and political flux

Sir Keir Starmer’s approach to the prime ministerial head-to-head last week was a fascinating study in the art of communication. Not because he delivered a masterclass (it is widely accepted that his opponent Rishi Sunak shaded the debate) but because of all the things he didn’t do.

We are all becoming familiar with the Labour leader’s “Ming vase” approach to protecting his party’s huge lead in the polls: tread carefully, say as little as possible and for goodness’ sake don’t drop any clangers.

This is known in football parlance as “parking the bus” – and it is unquestionably a sound strategy when your team is 4-0 up at half time.

But what if you are leading a business? How many company bosses would get away with such Olympian levels of circumspection? As a trainer who spends a great deal of time talking to the C-suite about communication, I can tell you the answer: barely any, and fewer with every passing year.

Because the public are increasingly demanding that businesses – and the people who lead them – take a principled stance. And they are voting with their wallets.

Like it or not, leaders find themselves in a position where they must act as public spokespeople for their organisation. And sometimes they have no option but to face difficult questions.

“Doing a Keir”, in other words, is rarely an option.

This is not just my opinion. This week Zeno London polled business leaders on the matter, and the results were unequivocal.

Nine out of ten stated that businesses should take a stance on the current “culture wars”, yet only a quarter of them trust the media to accurately represent their stance. The majority (58%) believe there is a sound business case for being proactive in expressing company views on political and social issues.

All of which raises an intriguing dilemma: most leaders accept that they need to say something – but they are worried their words will be misrepresented.

This dilemma is what drives communications trainers like myself. Let’s be clear: it doesn’t keep us up at night. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning.

Because yes, it is challenging, but it is a challenge to be relished. It is an intellectual puzzle which shifts with the prevailing social, political and economic landscape, but there are certain core elements which remain constant.

Here, in no particular order, are my top three. (And please do get in touch to let me know your thoughts, critiques and suggestions.)

  1. You must be able to go “off topic” competently. Communications training is not about instilling a Pavlovian response. Key messages matter (indeed, they are the backbone of efficient comms) but nobody wants to listen to a robot.
  2. Speaking in your own authentic voice makes this immeasurably easier. Faking it will only get you so far. The best trainers help you identify, refine and practice that voice to the point where communicating comes naturally.
  3. Respond, don’t react. Be it a debate, panel discussion or media interview, if something or someone is irritating you, engage brain first and mouth second. And watch your facial expressions – anyone who saw riled Rishi and cranky Keir on ITV this week will know what I’m talking about here.

Of course there is much more to it than this (off the top of my head I could add 4. Know when to shut up) but time and space don’t allow me to go on.

There are times when silence is golden. Any company with a crisis strategy worth its salt will have processes in place to assess this. And the truism still applies that if you are unsure, the most sensible course of action is to wait and see (in silence).

But for all the reasons outlined above, it is overwhelmingly likely that at some point every business leader will be compelled to speak out. And when that time comes, you’d better be ready.

So before you put down that Ming vase and slip the bus into first gear, get yourself some communications training. It will pay dividends.