Chief executives earn trust with honest answers


Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of EDF, recently gave an interview, he knew that trust in energy companies was at an all-time low. The interview was the perfect opportunity to start rebuilding it. So he mentioned “trust” – 61 times in fact – and little else. Unsurprisingly he was pilloried.

EDF will wrongly blame press negativity. But such a naive approach to corporate communication will always be punished. It was a classic blunder. Mentioning “trust” doesn't rebuild it any more than saying “money” will make you rich. I call it “end-gaining” – talking about a desired result instead of using good communication to achieve it.

A media interview is not an opportunity to shoehorn the latest corporate message into the public consciousness. It allows the outside world to question a business and the people running it. Interviewers decide what to discuss, not the interviewee. The moment questions are ducked or an insipid message is delivered, credibility goes down.

Board, investor and consumer confidence can depend on that credibility. Thomas Cook’s renegotiation of £900m of bank debt led to a 75 per cent drop in its share price. Broadcast interviews by acting chief executive Sam Weihagen were an opportunity to reassure and restore confidence. But when asked if Thomas Cook was a “company without a future” Weihagen didn’t offer an emphatic “no, not at all” and a list of the company’s strengths. He mumbled about sending people on holiday for 180 years and loyal customers. He didn’t answer the question.

Tesco chief executive Philip Clarke recently faced an uncomfortable financial comparison with rival Sainsbury’s. Next to his urbane counterpart Justin King he also struggled technically. Despite a warm presence, his spoken English sounds like written English said aloud (it’s vital to understand the difference). Clarke also peppers his messages with internal and industry jargon, blurring the message further.

Use of jargon is often a sign that the wider perspective has been lost. Bosses spend the majority of their time subsumed in their businesses. This can lead to a lack of clarity when communicating externally, as well as a tendency to slow down. It may seem logical to slow speech when putting across complex points, but evidence suggests that dropping below the average of 140 words per minute makes the argument seem less credible. Think about Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose speed can drop as low as 100 words per minute. My own work focuses on how above average speed with strong emphasis of operative words delivers a message very effectively. It’s a challenging but hugely rewarding technique to master.

None of this is about style. Style is subjective, and can’t rescue poor content anyway. But a great message plus good technique works regardless of style. And that message must include honest answers to external questions. Only by realising this will De Rivaz be able to start rebuilding that elusive trust.

James Hutchinson is a communications consultant specialising in corporate communication.