PR’s Top Pros Talk…Leadership – Chris Foster
Chris Foster, President, North America, BCW Group
Chris Foster, President, North America, BCW Group, shares insights on how the expectations on how to communicate have changed for organization leaders. He discusses the increased importance of DE&I and his own journey of becoming a Black agency leader. Chris also dives into the rising trend of CEOs being more engaged in the communications strategy.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: CHRIS FOSTER
DOUG: Chris, thanks for joining us. And you’ve spoken about how there’s been changing expectations for CEOs during the epidemic when it comes to how they communicate. Can you share those insights?
CHRIS: Sure. And Doug, thanks for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you today. I think there are a few things that have driven the change in expectations, and I think an opportunity for communications. Obviously, the pandemic. In the early days, if you can remember back, the employers were a real source of information, information around, not obviously the health side of the pandemic, but around work and the like, and that was quite important. Then as we moved into the corresponding financial challenges leading after that into a national dialogue, a global dialogue on race, inequality, there was an expectation that CEOs would communicate empathetically with staff, they’d communicate even when didn’t have answers, they’d give staff and customers a lens into their thinking as to sort of how they were thinking about preparing and managing their businesses, but also where they stood on certain societal issues. So, communications has always been important, but I’ve seen an evolution up the value chain where it really is becoming one of the more important tools in the toolbox for c-suite executives. And that’s I think it’s been great for all of us, but it’s also put a lot of pressure on CEOs and c-suite executives to communicate in ways that we may not have had two, three years ago. But I think generally it’s been a great thing.
DOUG: Yeah, and it’s interesting because that aligns with what we’ve seen from our TV producers survey, where the latest one, 92% of TV producers were open to interviewing brand executives for a story they’re working on. That’s the highest we’ve ever found it. Now, there’s also an interesting side of that to going from there’s more opportunity to communicate, it appears there is more need, but there’s more expectations. So, what do you do, how do you help maybe a reticent CEO, or someone who is not necessarily comfortable in that format, can they still be successful in this evolving environment?
CHRIS: Yeah, I’d say prepare, prepare, prepare. I was having a conversation earlier today, and regardless of whether we’re comfortable, or feel like we want to comment on certain issues, the expectation of brands, of leaders, of some of the most admired brands is that we will have a point of view. Even if we don’t want to take a hard stand, we are oftentimes being asked to explain why. So, I would say that, yes, the change in expectation from internal communications to communicate persuasively and empathetically to staff, but also among customers to just sort of share and articulate where an organization, or an individual stands on certain societal issues, or environmental issues, or domestic issues, even if it may not feel as close a link to the business. Having said that, we caution our clients to be authentic, incredibly authentic, and really think about the role that their organizations can play in societal issues so that we don’t overstep. It’s OK to announce your intent, or talk about your aspirations, but be very clear on what you may want to do. And in some cases in some of these issues that we’re managing as a society, it’s a journey. If you just take DE&I, for example, it’s a journey. I don’t think anyone can claim victory. I think we’re all in a different place given where we are as organizations, given our customer base, given the experiences of the past. But to continue to be on the journey, to be transparent about the journey, fail fast, and I found it’s even best when we share some of the learnings and the trepidation for CEOs as they’re being asked to communicate. So, the expectation’s there, but I think it’s also we’re being asked to communicate with more empathy and in some cases show a little more vulnerability, which is a little atypical for CEOs today.
DOUG: And as a segue, you spoke of the journey, you’ve spoken in the past about your internal journey as a person of color leading an agency. Would you like to get into that? Maybe that will give viewers some perspective about the situation from someone who’s been hyper successful in the industry?
CHRIS: Well, I’m grateful to be in the position I’m in today, and there have been a lot of people who helped me over the years, and who’ve sponsored me and mentored me and from who I have learned. I’m very proud of the position I’m in, I’m excited about the role that I’m able to play. But I think I have a responsibility to do a few things. One is to lead BCW, North America, in our journey not just around managing the business and delivering successfully on our financial metrics and on people metrics, but also taking us on a journey relative to DE&I. I’ve said before Doug, you mentioned other interviews, I mean, I feel like I finally have a seat at the table where I could affect real change because I’m accountable to that change. And if anyone has ever worked with Donna Imperato, you know, accountability matters. And so, I sort of push that accountability into the organization in a way that I think is respectful of where we are in a journey, but also holds our feet to the fire. So, I think that’s been good. For me, I lead all the people in North America of BCW Group, not just certain segments, but I do want to use my voice. I want to use whatever influence I have to lean in to diverse staff, to developing our staff and being very sensitive to the challenges around working in advisory services to make sure we recruit the most diverse talent, and we’re relentless about how we source talent and how we develop talent, and then how we advance our talent in the organization, making sure that there’s a high degree of transparency, but also we’re making sure there’s fairness and equity around that. And those are three core tenants to how we’re looking at DE&I over an umbrella of accountability.
DOUG: And you’re probably trying to bring some of those similar attitudes to the corporations, companies, nonprofits that you work with. Another trend, and this is also because of the pandemic, has been what you describe as selling more upstream, people closer to the top are more engaged in what the communications plans need to be because there’s more at stake. Is it different for an agency person with this new challenge of sort of the involved CEO if we look at it that way in the communications program? How does that differ? What are some strategies do you have to navigate through that successfully for yourself and your team?
CHRIS: Yeah, look, first of all, I love it. I love the fact that we have more engaged CEOs in communication, we have more boards of directors who engage in communications, curious around that. I mean, one of the things that’s important that I see hands down is you have to understand, depending on the type of organization, whether it’s private or public, their stakeholders are different. If I’m the CEO of a publicly traded company, my stakeholder base may be a little different than that of a non-profit. So, I need to have a much clearer understanding of the priority stakeholders in audiences, whether it’s Wall Street, or analysts, or the like, because that’s very, very important to some CEOs. So, that in and of itself can be different.
DOUG: Let me ask you, tell me the importance of having a better sense of what’s going on out there as part of your communication strategy.
CHRIS: So, what I mean by that, Doug, is having a better sense of what’s going on is understanding, having a keen understanding. When you start to provide communications consulting to CEOs and CFOs and board of directors, you need to really understand the broader enterprise-wide strategy for an organization, not just what you’re trying to do from a communication standpoint in a division. You really need to look at the enterprise and have that, because that’s how CEOs are looking at their jobs, not just through one division, or one business unit, or one stakeholder set. So, really having that perspective about the enterprise-wide strategy, the competitive set and the issues that matter most to the organization, I think that sort of expands our thinking, it’s challenged us as communications professionals to expand our thinking a bit against really important and vocal influencer segment.
DOUG: As you wrap up, PR historically has not had a great record when it comes to DE&I. There’s clearly more awareness, are you optimistic that things are moving in the right direction at least, and does it need to move quicker? What are the things that could help make it move quicker?
CHRIS: Yeah, Doug, I sent a communication out to my team in North America last June. And I was a little, few days probably later than I would have wanted to, and I explained in the communication that it took me a while to find my voice a bit because I wanted to be incredibly hopeful that we were seeing the right energy and the safe conversations that we’re having and the dialogue on race and inequality and social justice. I wanted to make sure it was going to be durable, and I wanted to wait to see if this was just going to be a moment in time, or a movement. But I gave myself permission to be incredibly hopeful and to be incredibly optimistic. And I haven’t been let down yet. I think the industry is continuing on its journey. We’re not where we want to be by any stretch. I think we have a lot of work to do. But I do continue to see a relentless focus on trying to get it right. No one’s perfect, no organization is perfect, no agency is perfect. But I think we’re learning, I think we continue to take on difficult issues, I think the forums like this to bring race and equality into a regular course of conversation is important. So, I applaud you for continuing to do that and other organizations.
DOUG: Thank you.
CHRIS: Because we can’t stop. And I think if we continue on this journey and learn from one another, create safe spaces, fail fast, not be afraid to take risks, so, I’m optimistic. I wish we would move faster, candidly, myself included. But it is a journey and I think we’re moving for BCW as fast as we can, and I’m proud of what we’ve done.
DOUG: Great. Well, congratulations to you on being a catalyst for change, being the change itself as well, and sharing such guidance and advice as well as your hopeful, inspirational nature. We appreciate it.
CHRIS: Doug, I appreciate it. thank you so much.