“Chief Engagement Officer:” The Role of CEOs in Internal Communication

Linjuan Rita Men blog photoIn a recent interview with McKinsey & Company in April 2014, Richard Edelman used the term “chief engagement officer” to describe a Chief Executive Officer’s (CEO) new role, when discussing how today’s leaders can regain public trust. Rather than merely formulate policies, CEOs must step forward, meet communities both internally and externally, establish personal relationships, and genuinely listen to people’s concerns. I cannot agree more!

CEOs and their organizations are naturally linked together. CEOs, especially those who are also founders of their organizations, define corporate DNAs such as corporate character, mission, goals, purposes, culture, and values. For example, consider Apple’s innovative and ruthless culture under Steve Jobs and Facebook’s ‘hacker’ culture under the leadership of Mark Zuckerberg. From a public relations perspective, CEOs serve as the “face” and spokesperson of their companies, shaping their firm’s corporate image in the eyes of their external constituencies. Moreover, as the top leaders and symbols of power within an organization, CEOs can support and participate in communication programs, set the tone for internal communication, and create communication systems that can be managed effectively.

More importantly, CEOs can act as “chief engagement officers” and directly interact with their employees through leadership and executive communication. This is particularly relevant in today’s social media era when communication hierarchies have been blurred by the interactive, personal, democratic, empowering, and relational features of social media tools. Thus, the power distance has been reduced, bringing CEOs into life and allowing them to communicate with their employees in a friendly, authentic, and informal manner. Before coming down to the question how CEOs should communicate internally—which I will tackle in my future blog entries—we should ask ourselves: why does this matter? In my recent study, I surveyed 545 employees from different organizations and industries in the United States regarding their attitudes and experiences with CEO internal communications. Several interesting findings were revealed:

  1. CEO communication quality influences CEO credibility. When employees perceive CEO communication as excellent or satisfactory, their perception of the CEO improves. They view their leader as a highly credible, dependable, and reliable expert with an advanced level of skills and knowledge.
  2. CEO credibility builds internal reputation, which in turn boosts employee engagement. Employees who perceive their CEOs as highly trustworthy, credible, competent, and qualified tend to like their company more, express more confidence toward their organization, and have a more favorable assessment of their organization’s reputation. Such employees tend to have a higher level of engagement, dedication, absorption, and loyalty to their organization.
  3. Effective CEO communication empowers employees. Effective CEO communication with employees – that is two-way, open, responsive, sincere, compassionate, and respectful – can instill in the employees a sense of empowerment and appreciation. Such communication efforts create an empowered workforce that is happier and more committed to the organization, which eventually contributes to the organizational performance. Moreover, such employees identify more with their organization and are more willing to walk the extra mile, express their opinion, and make a difference in the organization.
  4. Effective CEO communication makes CEOs better leaders. Leadership is enacted through communication. Hence, effective communication is the key to achieving an effective, transformational, charismatic, authentic, and participative leadership style. When employees perceive CEO communication as excellent and satisfactory, they tend to rate their CEOs as transformational and authentic leaders.

Indeed, effective or not, CEO–employee communication influences the perceptions of employees toward the top management and employees’ morale and attitudes toward their workplace.

A simple checklist

In today’s social era, public relations professionals must harness the power of the CEOs as the “chief engagement officer.” Here’s a simple checklist to help you start.

  1. Educate CEOs about their vital roles in organizational internal communication. CEOs should be fully aware of how their style and quality of communication can influence organizational perceptions, employee morale, and engagement.
  2. Assist CEOs in developing a suitable, unique, and consistent communication style, which is congruent with CEO’s personality, character, and leadership style, and organizational culture and climate.
  3. Prepare CEOs with key messages that are aligned with business goals and objectives and tailored for each target audience (e.g.,C-Suite, middle/lower-level management, staff/line managers, and non-management employees).
  4. Equip CEOs with effective communication tools. This includes traditional tools, such as face-to-face channels, print publications, email, and phones, as well as new technological tools such as blogs, intranet, social networking sites, instant messengers, and video-/tele-conferences.
  5. Encourage CEOs to be open-minded, embrace changes, and build a prominent and visible social media presence. CEOs should be encouraged to personally interact with their employees via social media and proactively listen to them.
  6. Develop metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of internal CEO communication, diagnose problems, document success, and set clear direction for future efforts.

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Rita Linjuan Men, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of public relations at Southern Methodist University and assistant research director for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center.



Posted in [Blog], Employee / Organizational Communication, Employee Engagement, Leadership Communications.


  1. Nice Writeup. I completely agree that the role of Chief Engagement Officer is to bring about clarity in communications and help employees understand how they are contributing to those objectives, thus helping them find meaning in their work.

    My post ‘How companies can effectively engage employees’ (http://prepforum.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/engaging-employees-for-creating-business-value/) is much in sync with this writeup. You may want to have a look.

    It would also be interesting to know to what extent and how CEOs can optimally intervene in management functions to increase employee engagement and look at the factors that can impede them from doing so.

    • Many thanks for sharing your article on employee engagement, Somali! I enjoyed reading it quite much. I especially like the your summary of the key factors that drive employee engagement at the end of the article, with “senior communication style and vision” being one of them. Also, I agree that line management style and communication is equally important for employee engagement. That concurs with my previous studies which showed that direct managers (supervisors) are among the most trustworthy sources of information for employees in the organization. So how the direct manager communicates and what they communicate would matter for employee attitudes, engagement, and even performance.

      As for the question you proposed, “to what extend and how CEOs can optimally intervene in management functions to increase employee engagement,” I think this would be a great research question for my next study. I’d be happy to share with you my research findings by then. 🙂

  2. Nice article. Yes the CEO is pretty critical to good internal communications. However the one thing they all must do is: listen. They must be willing to take on board what employees are saying. One CEO told me that he couldn’t understand why some employees were complaining about different things in the business. He just didn’t or even want to see where the employees were coming from.

    • Thanks for your comment, Andrew! I agree with you that listening is certainly foremost for CEOs to get to effective internal communication. They need to listen to PR professionals and employees at all levels. Listening is among the first steps, looking for employee needs and wants (from CEOs and the organization). “Management by walking around” is a popular strategy, but these days we have easier and more convenient digital tools for “social listening.” Also, I think how CEOs respond to employee voice, needs and wants in a timely, sincere, caring, authentic, and respectful manner is equally, if not more, important than listening.

  3. I have just submitted a PhD thesis on the topic of the CEO as the chief communication officer. This research clearly demonstrates that key external stakeholders such as investors, analysts and the media perceive the CEO as the primary source of credibility about the organisation and their reputation and that of the organisation are inextricably linked ( analyst responses were that they factored in how the CEO communicates when deciding if they wanted to invest, sell or hold stock in a company). What was highlighted was that CEOs receive very little or no specific training on core communication behavioural attributes required for them to manage relationships with external stakeholders and are presumed to be effective communicators when in the C-suite. The corporate world is littered with former CEOs who did not understand this aspect of their job ( e.g.WorldCom, BP,HP).

    • Thanks much for sharing your dissertation findings, Donald! It sounds like a very interesting study! What your research revealed here makes perfect sense to me. We need more of this kind of research to let CEOs, the board, and the business communities know that the CEO’s image and communication truly matters, not only for the company’s reputation, but also for its bottom line. Like what you found in your study, analysts “factor in how the CEO communicates when deciding if they want to invest, sell, or hold stock in a company.” It works the same way for employees. There are people who join an organization because of a charismatic CEO and people who leave the company because they lose confidence in the top management and can’t see their future. It seems our research concurs that how a CEO presents herself or himself (or communicates) affects his perceived credibility by the public, internal or external, which in turn, affects the publics’ confidence toward the organization.

      I look forward much to reading your dissertation, Donald! Do you mind sharing it with me (cicirita@gmail.com) after your dissertation defense? If there’s a chance in future, we could also collaborate on CEO studies. 🙂

  4. This is a great read on the importance of a CEO’s engagement and how to go about building these relationships. Doing the work with real authenticity is a challenge when CEO’s are uncomfortable with this type of relationship building or not wholly invested in the concept. If outreach is just some type of “flavor of the month” program and not authentic to the CEO and the organization, it can fail badly. Also, once in place, it is important that Boards of Directors understand the difficulty to stakeholders of changing leadership like we change our socks (just take a look at the Market Basket case unfolding in the Northeast at the moment).

    • Thanks much Stacey for sharing your insight! It’s always a joy reading your comments! I agree with you that CEO engagement and relationship building with employees has to be done in an authentic and genuine way. Otherwise, it won’t give us the results we’d like to see. Like one of my previous studies showed, authenticity has a large positive impact on relationship outcomes (e.g., public trust, satisfaction, commitment) and employee engagement. When both transparency and authenticity are considered, authenticity actually shows larger influence on engagement than transparency. That’s probably why these days a lot of business leaders are talking about “authentic leadership.”

      I think CEO communication/engagement efforts need to be built into the communication system of the organization. PR people really have to educate the CEO and the Board of Directors why CEO and executive communication matters and equip CEOs with such knowledge, skills, and content. But it looks like not many companies are doing this. As Donald’s dissertation shows, in general CEOs receive very little or no specific training on effective communication attributes. It would be interesting to look at what are some of the challenges or barriers for CEO engagement (e.g., lack of awareness, CEO’s time, knowledge and expertise maybe?).

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