Social media has created two-way dialogue and real brand accountability. The 24/7 news cycle has amplified the impact of any crisis, from CEOs sticking their foot in their mouths to customer data breaches. Brands are compelled to be socially and environmentally conscious. Heck, Millennials want to know your charitable partners before they buy your goods or apply for your jobs.
These are just a few of the new functions that fall on the shoulders of today’s Chief Communications Officer (CCO). No longer is this a role exclusively focused on scooping up media hits and serving as the corporate talking head. Today’s CCO has a voice in brand, content strategy, employee engagement and even corporate character. (That’s right; a Korn/Ferry survey found that half of CCOs were being asked to define and activate “corporate character.”)
The Way I See It:
- In a day when media cycles last the blink of an eye and the expectation for crisis management is immediate, having a CCO who thrives in the moment is critical. Possessing great self and social awareness is also very helpful.
- The CCO needs a strong team, but he or she also needs to dive into the details. What are followers saying on Twitter? How are front-line employees speaking with customers? And how will the CEO answer media questions about shareholder value on the conference call? You need to know. You can’t lead communications from afar; you need to enter the fray.
- At the end of the day, all the existing and new duties of the CCO can be summed up with this: storytelling. And it’s not just about being able to compellingly and consistently tell that story – it’s about getting others to believe and share it, too.
The Way The Industry Sees It:
I sat down and chatted with Roger Bolton, President of the Arthur W. Page Society, which is the premier professional association for senior corporate communications executives. I wanted to find out just how much the role of the Chief Communications Officer has changed – and where it’s headed.
I maintain that no other C-Suite role has experienced the almost jarring changes, mostly increases in responsibility, as the CCO. Am I right or wrong?
It’s a tough question, because the changes for CCOs are profound, but the forces driving change in the enterprise also affect the entire C-Suite. New business models and modes of work; rapidly shifting demographic, socioeconomic and political conditions; empowered stakeholders – these are driving enterprises to profoundly change the way they work, think and are organized. But I do think you’re right: the CCO is right in the center of it all. We see three critical roles for the new CCO: first, the traditional role as senior business counselor and steward of enterprise reputation is even more critical than ever before. Second, the CCO must serve as integrator, leading cross-functional collaboration as the enterprise strives to build an authentic corporate character and meaningful stakeholder relationships. Third, the future CCO will build and manage Digital Engagement Systems that will formalize the process of engaging with stakeholders, not merely as segments, but as individuals.
Is there such a thing as on-the-job training for CCO’s accustomed to the way it was? Does your group provide any resources?
Yes, the successful CCO is the one who not only sees trends coming, but actively shapes the organization’s response. So in this time of great change, developing new skills and capabilities is essential. Page member’s work together to see the future comings and imagine what might be. We articulate that in our research reports, like the one on the New CCO that we released this month. Then we get together with each other and with outside experts in conferences and workshops to share insights and experiences. Finally, we’re developing a new curriculum for CCOs and their teams that will help them acquire and hone the skills and capabilities needed for success.
Today’s CCO has responsibilities that seem shared with other company functions. So how do you do your job without stepping on toes? For example, how can you lead the building of corporate culture for a growing start-up without getting in the way of HR? Or how can you contribute to content strategy without getting tangled up with the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)?
In one sense, this is not new. When I was a CCO, I worked hand-in-glove with both the Chief Human Recourses Executive (CHRO) and the CMO on culture and brand issues and with other c-suite executives on all aspects of reputation and engagement. But the convergence of paid, earned and owned media in the digital era, combined with rapid change in the business environment, makes that collaboration even more critical than ever before. And, as your question implies, the boundaries between what’s yours and mine are blurred. It requires a mindset change, from ownership to shared responsibility. The CCO as integrator must be an advocate for cross-functional teams that focus on performance and results, not on institutional prerogatives. The key is to recognize that common purpose and a commonly agreed approach to the work trumps the supposed efficiency of more structured reporting relationships.
Pick a company where you would love to be the CCO for the day. Who’s doing things the right way?
I can’t pick just one; there are too many great examples. Mike Fernandez of Cargill has earned the trust of non-governmental organization. Wendi Strong, who just left USAA, united a culture and brand behind an authentic corporate character. Christof Ehrhart of Deutsche Post DHL is integrating communications and corporate responsibility to build stakeholder capital. Elise Eberwein remarkably leads both human resourses and communications at American Airlines through its integration with US Airways. Ginger Hardage nourished that amazing culture of Southwest Airlines until her recent retirement. Gary Sheffer, who just left GE, worked with the CHRO and the CMO, Beth Comstock, to align culture and brand. Dave Samson of Chevron and Suzanne McCarron of ExxonMobil lead remarkable stakeholder engagement strategies in a politically charged environment. Mike Buckley of Facebook and Corey duBrowa of Starbucks are driving mission and purpose at hot, young companies. Richard Woods of Capital One runs a huge P&L and is responsible to the board for reputation risk. Without playing favorites, I will confess a soft spot in my heart as a former IBM-er for the work Jon Iwata has done there aligning strategy, culture, and brand.
What type of background and training will tomorrow’s CCO need? How is it different from what’s worked in the past?
I think a great CCO can come from almost any field of training and experience. I was a journalist who learned public relations in politics and government before switching to corporate communications. That’s still a good path for many. But now we’re seeing people from other functions, including law and marketing and line business responsibility, coming into the role. What matters most is this: the CCO must understand and be committed to a broad stakeholder view that values all perspectives, must have the ability to think critically about business issues and to speak up forcefully and effectively to define and activate corporate character, and must build respect and alliances across the enterprise.
What is the most interesting thing in your office?
I love my office photos of my family and those from my political past and my passion for baseball, which I play annually at the Cincinnati Reds’ Fantasy Camp at the Spring Training facility in Goodyear, Arizona. But the most interesting thing actually is the view from my office window of the outdoor Beer Bar at Café Centro, right by Grand Central Station. In summertime, it’s a gathering place for thirsty office workers. During the World Cup, you could hear the rousing cheers rising up whenever a goal was scored. I confess my colleagues and I snuck out once or twice to join in those festivities.