Not too long ago, I had a phone conversation with the editor of a popular blog. A story about GE that was negative and, I thought, unfair had been posted to the blog. So putting on my former journalist hat, I asked him what his rules were for sourcing such stories. His answer only reinforced for me that the job of chief communications officer has changed.
“Rules? What rules? Who do you think we are, The New York Times?”
Yes, times have changed. Facing everything from a volatile economy and corporate scandals to the social media revolution and convergence of business and government, the job of a chief communications officer has never been more complex— and the expectations never greater. But if navigating what is often dramatic change is a CCO's challenge, then driving and leading often dramatic change, internally, at our companies and organizations, is our great opportunity.
But how do we do that? It's one of the things we'll be exploring at this year's Arthur W. Page Society Annual Conference, held from September 11 to 13 in Washington, DC. The theme of this year's conference is “Chief Communications Officers at the Center of Change,” and we are certainly living in a time where, as it has been said, change is the only constant. While there are certainly many opinions and different best practices on how to do this, one answer is to be transparent. Radically so.
My own lesson on this began about three years ago, during the financial crisis. I learned a lot about our profession, myself, and about the environment in which we operate. Critics said our financial business GE Capital was a “black box,” impenetrable to even the sharpest financial mind. If ever there was a need for transparency that was it. We added pages to our financial filings, advertised, and put more executives out there talking about the business. Our six-hour, 176-slide presentation may have left some analysts numb, but it also left them reassured about GE Capital.
I recognize we are working in an environment of even less trust and more cynicism of big business, a political system in the US that is as divisive as it has been in a long time, and digital and social media outlets that give critics more platforms than ever to influence your reputation. All of that means we have to create a new model for media relations; we have to be more aggressive than ever in telling our story – in effect becoming our own media company – to help people understand what we do and how we do it.
Today, an increasing number of us have that once-elusive seat at the table. We're wasting it if we only see ourselves as a docile counselor to the C-suite, or only as reporter of the decisions made there. Rather, this is the time to be an even better coach to the C-suite, to be willing to take more risks and then to explain why those risks are not only worth it, but that in today's environment, they are often the only choice.
There will definitely be days when you wish you had been a little less transparent and that there were more rules, any rules, to guide you. But we need to have the courage and expertise to have these difficult conversations and to show why being open should be a closed case. For CCOs, meeting this challenge will bring credibility and the opportunity to deliver more value to our companies.
Gary Sheffer is VP of corporate communications at GE and co-chair of the Arthur W. Page Society's Annual Conference in Washington, DC, September 11 to 13. He is also chair of judges for the 2012 PRWeek Awards.