Ted Garrard: A CEO’s perspective on communications (Q&A)

Be transparent, open and accessible, and never try to spin a story. That’s a key piece of advice from Ted Garrard, president and CEO of SickKids Foundation—the fundraising arm of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Garrard, who took the helm in 2009, was recently named 2013 Communicator of the Year by IABC/Toronto, thanks largely to […]

Be transparent, open and accessible, and never try to spin a story. That’s a key piece of advice from Ted Garrard, president and CEO of SickKids Foundation—the fundraising arm of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Garrard, who took the helm in 2009, was recently named 2013 Communicator of the Year by IABC/Toronto, thanks largely to his efforts in transparency and openness. Marketing spoke with Garrard about the importance of communications and how CEOs can be more effective communicators.

What role does communication play at SickKids Foundation?

Ted Garrard

Particularly [because] we’re in the business of raising funds and demonstrating impact around the use of the funds, communication plays an absolutely central role in being able to tell our story, to talk about the need for public support and why it’s so important, and then to demonstrate the great impact that philanthropy has in the work we’re able to do at SickKids. [That includes] the quality of care we can provide, the research we undertake and the teaching of the next generation of pediatric specialists. So communications is really fundamental to our success as an organization.

Do you rely a lot on PR and the media to get those stories out?
We have to get to the story [out] though a number of different channels. We use earned media, we pay for media, we ask for media companies to donate inventory. We communicate through direct marketing channels, our lottery and electronic newsletter. We have a policy here that for every dollar we spend to tell our story, we have to get $3 donated. It’s just this principle that yes, it’s expected that we have to spend some money to be able tell our story, but we’re also a charity and we expect that we’re going to get at least three times what we spend donated back to us.

How important is internal communications?
It’s really important too because one of the things we pride ourselves on is to be really connected to the cause of children’s health. We spend a lot of time trying to engage our employees in staying connected to the cause, telling them the stories about some of the patients and their families and how they’ve been helped by SickKids. Internal communications is something we spend a good deal of time on through a variety of different mechanisms, including all-staff meetings and “Breakfasts with Ted.” [The monthly breakfast] is an opportunity for me to sit down with groups of employees to hear more about what they’re doing, but also what more do they need from us in terms of more effective communications. We want everybody to be satisfied that they’re getting the right amount of information at the right time.

Recent surveys show a lack of trust for CEOs among the public and employees. Why do you think CEOs aren’t trusted?
I have to say that the fact that I was nominated for the IABC award by my employees says to me that hopefully they have some level of regard for me… and they kept it from me too! I think I can understand how employees can sometimes feel alienated from the chief executive, unless the chief executive is really making an effort to be completely transparent, open and accessible to employees… That’s one issue that could cause some skepticism in CEOs. The other thing is obviously people perceive that there’s a wide disparity in incomes between what chief executives get and what rank-and-file [get] and that may be a factor. [Additionally], chief executives have to make tough decisions and sometimes those tough decisions aren’t going to always popular. If the tough decisions are being made without providing people with the right information as to why and what the consequences are, then perhaps people would feel a sense of alienation. We’re paid to make tough decisions, but it’s how we do it, not what we decide to do. And that’s why I think this whole point about being transparent, open and accessible is so important.

What are the keys to effective communications from a CEO?
For me, it is about honesty, it’s about transparency and it’s about timeliness. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to spin a story, for example. I’ve always believed that you should get the facts out; be able to defend them, whether they’re popular or not; don’t try to obfuscate; and get ahead of an issue. Make sure you’re responding in real time. I think goes back to the trust point and whether or not you are regarded well, people can see through whether or not you’re telling the truth or whether or not you’re trying to spin. I have always been a person who believes that being forthright is absolutely the best way to go.

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