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Corporate Executives: Whose Voice Is It, Anyway?

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Written by Scott Carlberg, TalkingPoints USA. scott@talkingpointsusa.com

Every corporate executive has two public voices: institutional and personal. Each has its own time and place. The question is how does a corporate communicator consider when to use each voice?  

 What’s the difference between the two?  “An institutional voice speaks for the company in its financial, legal, strategic, and other official matters. A personal voice reveals character and leadership,” says David L. Shank, APR, president of Shank Public Relations Counselors, Inc.

An institutional voice needs consistency in the company message to markets, regulators, and stakeholders. “Matters of record about the company,” according to a communicator in a major manufacturing firm (ever the ghostwriter, not the name in public). “Especially when talking finance, there is commonly accepted language, or, ‘What something means no matter what an exec says.'”

Depending on their space, companies voice differing financial focuses. Each is honest and significant. Again, according to the manufacturing communicator, “Our corporate writers have adapted to our organizational message. It’s often different from company to company but consistent within a company. Corporate financial messages often concern some version of adjusted operating profit or book value. Capital-intensive companies may focus on cash flow because of the high levels of depreciation; retailers focus more on inventories.”

The point is that every company has its own vernacular. The writers, at least the ones who succeed, are adept at capturing that language in their work.

A personal voice often shares a relevant and meaningful anecdote, a story about a mentor, family, school experience, or a customer. David Shank provides this example from an executive he coached: “The executive shared in the media that a certain company service might be discontinued. The young daughter of a customer, with tears in her eyes, offered her piggy bank as help. The true story was memorable, carried the executive’s message, and humanized the news.”

A personal voice is especially useful for employee communications and community relations and must be as factual and accurate as the institutional voice.

When assessing the use of executive voices, Maura Payne, vice president of external affairs for Reynolds American Inc., says “It’s like trying to serve two masters, informational and personal.”

She suggests trying this as a gauge: “When the way the audience feels when you leave is more important than what you told them, use the personal voice.” That may be a litmus test for the right amount of executive freelancing. A personal voice is, by nature, more colorful. A motivational voice spurs people to a heartfelt action versus a corporate financial move.

Another test: Is it acceptable for the audience to laugh? If it is, an executive can use more of a personal voice. (If an audience snickers during an earnings report, well, that’s a bigger issue.)

Some ways to assess which voice to use:

  • Is the goal to inform or persuade? To inform leans to institutional while to persuade leans toward the  personal .
  • What’s the forum? For instance, regulators or Rotary? The voice for regulators would be more executive, while the voice for Rotary may lean toward more personal.
  • Who’s speaking? Some executives are natural-born speakers. They feel the crowd and work it. Others may need word-for-word on a page or detailed bullet points to keep messaging in line.

When assessing which executive voice to use, adopt a keen asset protection mentality. If a presentation could affect company value, property, or standing, be measured and smart. Don’t play word games that interest only a small cadre of word geeks.

There is no one voice to properly communicate your company’s mission or issues, but assessing when to use each can make you more effective.

Scott Carlberg leads strategic corporate and nonprofit public affairs initiatives, highlighting corporate departmental turnarounds and catalytic special projects. He has experience in the full range of public affairs, such as video, media, e-communications, live events, specialized venues for highly targeted audiences, plus human resources and strategic planning. He leads Talking Points, LLC – Public Affairs Management. Previously Carlberg was director of communications for a global research organization, the Electric Power Research Institute. He’s also worked at Duke Energy and Phillips Petroleum and was president of E 4  Carolinas, a two-state energy industry trade association. He is based in Charlotte. 

Corporate Executives: Whose Voice Is It, Anyway?

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