by Dan Roberts

How CIOs communicate success — and elevate their game

Apr 22, 20197 mins

Communication — whether internal or external — is a key part of the CIO's job. A strategic partner in this effort is the IT communications lead.

talking tech in the board room deloitte
Credit: Thinkstock

Communicating, or marketing, the IT organization may strike an old-school CIO as needless flash, ego, and a distraction from “the real work.” But as much as anything else a CIO does, communication is very real work.

To name just four key IT priorities that greatly depend on communication:

  • The fight for talent
  • The CIO’s personal brand — which ties closely to the talent effort
  • The CIO’s increasing role as a public-facing, customer-engaging corporate leader
  • IT maturity — the evolution from service provider to strategic partner to “innovative anticipator”

That’s a lot to accomplish, and no CIO does it alone. There’s a trifecta of unsung heroes supporting today’s CIO. (We discussed the HR business partner previously, and I’ll feature the chief of staff soon.) Let’s dive into a role that’s essential to IT maturity and the more public face of CIOs and their organizations: the IT communications lead.

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In recent months, I’ve asked more than a dozen IT communications professionals at forward-thinking companies about the lessons they’ve learned and the strategic principles they live by. Most important, every one of them said, was that communications have a seat at the CIO’s table as a recognized strategic partner. Believe me, I know these folks, and you want them at your table. With this article, I’ll dive into the first two of four key lessons drawn from these conversations.

Lesson 1: Top communicators cut through the noise

“It’s exponentially harder to reach an audience today,” says Corky Valenti, senior manager of IT communications at Asurion, a global tech care leader. “Yet we have so much more to communicate.”

Indeed, studies suggest that we’re all exposed to upward of 10,000 brand messages per day and that the average attention span is down to eight seconds. How many of the hundreds of logos, slogans, and pitches that you’ve seen today do you still remember?

“People are overwhelmed with information,” says Madia Logan, Boeing’s senior manager of communications and brand management. “So, words are important. You have a limited amount of time to capture somebody’s attention and deliver a message.”

Pick your spots, Corky says, and remember to get the core message across quickly. We used to write newsletters, and now, really, we’re writing subject lines and tweets. It’s important to write from the audience’s perspective. Tech messaging often gets caught up in the how of doing things, but always lead with the why — with what’s in it for the reader.

Ted Hernandez, senior director of IT engagement at Dignity Health, says his aim is not only to grab attention, but to save time. “We try to eliminate duplication, but to present content in a variety of formats,” he says. “That’s a constant struggle.”

Corky agrees, revising the old saw about communicating a message seven times to get through to the audience. With today’s volume, you’d just be making the clutter worse, right?

“I think a better way to look at it has to be that we have seven, or however many, different channels,” he says. “How do we choose the right channel for the right person at the right time so that we maximize the probability that that person will get the message? That’s what I’d call strategic communication.”

And every one of these communications wizards reminded me that in this world of constant communication, you’re competing for attention against the most compelling, convenient, engaging consumer brands in history. Internal communications have to be on the quality level of an external ad or marketing campaign: appealingly designed, relevant, jargon-free, and concise.

Lesson 2: External is internal, and vice versa

Multiple communication leaders told me that the best route to an internal audience might be external. Media coverage, or appearances on your internal audience’s social channels, give extra resonance to the message. There’s a pride factor, especially, when your company is being recognized for its accomplishments or vision.

External communications include media stories, speaking engagements, and awards and recognition, and they all build your brand inside and out. But the flip side of the external = internal relationship is that the internal can also become external, which requires care in the crafting of internal messages. More than one communications expert reminded me that internal messages about a new idea, product or event can end up leaked, deliberately or unintentionally, through social media and other channels.

And these days, one random account on Twitter can have a louder voice than any intentional press release. That elevates the reach of a leak or slip, but it also confuses your intentional media strategy. There is no longer such a clear ecosystem of external media — top-tier consumer outlets, trade publications, etc. Sorting through this complex new landscape is crucial: Your talent brand is fighting FAANG and claw for IT candidates against the likes of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. You must project a competitive, appealing image.

A challenge and a solution is to focus on storytelling. Thinking in terms of a narrative is a great way to engage an audience — primarily because a storyteller’s starting point should be, “How do I engage my audience?” That’s where the importance of why over how comes in, despite the common IT trait of focusing on the details of how a piece of code functions — when the real story may be that the small backend change it enables is saving the company millions.

Another thing the storyteller considers is the method by which the story is told. In my conversations, I heard that the internal newsletter is making a comeback, but with greater focus, and I also heard a number of engaging uses of CIO-led forums and short videos. It reminded me of an HR leader I know who uses such unusual venues as a book clubto grab attention and drive engagement.

In the second article in this two-part series, I focus not on communications, but on the communicators themselves: both the CIO as point person for the IT brand, and on every other IT employee, each of whom is a brand ambassador in his or her own right.

If you’d like additional resources to help with your marketing and communications initiatives, please email me at I’d also like to hear about your communications successes and how you’re moving your org up the IT Maturity Curve.

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