Time to move from talking to doing

As the elite of the CCO profession prepares to gather in New York City for the Arthur W. Page Society Spring Seminar, the time has come to move the agenda beyond academic debates into real actions.

The PR industry is going through a time of intense change and permanent evolution that makes it the most exciting time to be in the profession – but also a little frightening.

This affects every PR pro but is particularly pertinent for those communicators working in-house on the client side.

Next week, the Arthur W. Page Society gathers in New York City for its Spring Seminar, introduced by its current chairman and Chevron’s VP of public affairs, Dave Samson.

As the professional trade body for the chief communications officer for more than 30 years, the society is tasked with ensuring that PR and communications must be integral executive functions in every public enterprise.

In 2007, the Page Society unveiled its "Authentic Enterprise" report, setting out the business case for the above premise and the need to actively and ethically engage with stakeholders and earn their trust.

That was followed in 2012 with "Building Belief: A New Model for Activating Corporate Character & Authentic Advocacy," describing how CCOs can help build engaged enterprises worthy of the trust of their stakeholders, and develop corporate character based around a clear sense of values.

The latest report, two years in the making and released earlier this month, is titled "The New CCO: Transforming Enterprises in a Changing World." It describes how and why the CCO role is more critical than ever before for businesses, companies, and organizations – or "enterprises" as the Page reports call them.

Reports and research projects are great – every credible industry needs a sound foundation to underpin it. And the content contained therein is undoubtedly useful for those looking to build an effective in-house communications function.

But sometimes I feel these exercises can get a little bogged down in theory and come over as too academic, rather than being based on groundbreaking case studies and super-charged by the real-world examples that are truly proving the value of PR to business.

Frankly, I’d also like to see a more diverse group fronting up the debates and discussions. The rather low-key report release event on March 16 featured a discussion involving Page Society president Roger Bolton, Richard Edelman, Cargill’s Mike Fernandez, IBM’s Jon Iwata, Gary Sheffer, and one woman – IPR president and CEO Tina McCorkindale. It was all preceded by a video from Chevron’s Samson.

These are all fantastic PR pros, great friends of PRWeek, and people for whom I have enormous respect. Their achievements are there for all to see. But they definitely represent a certain cadre and generation of the PR profession.

Is it just me, or were the optics a little off? In an industry that is 70% populated by women, surely there should be a better gender balance represented in the public face of the process?

Today, PRWeek launches its inaugural Hall of Femme, celebrating talented female PR pros who challenge the status quo, push for the big idea, and strive to make a difference. There are plenty of women in the industry who are role models to every PR pro and who could make – and indeed are making – significant contributions to the development of the profession.

I want to hear what Stacey Tank at Home Depot thinks; Deirdre Latour at GE; Charlene Wheeless at Bechtel; Mónica Talán at Univision; Shannon Stubo at LinkedIn; Diane Pelkey at Under Armour; Marjorie Schussel at Toyota. And so on, and so on.

I’m not saying there aren’t women involved in the Page Society; clearly there are - and it's good to see that some of these execs named above will be involved in the Spring Seminar. I’m saying the optics are sometimes off in terms of the public exposition of the Page Principles and the Page debates.

Could there not also be a place for contributions from the Page Up community? These are the senior staffers in organizations who don’t hold the top position but who are definitely helping shape the profession and are right at the heart of efforts to help transform businesses and organizations through the communications function.

I know both these groups were involved in the Page Jam online forum that preceded the report, but I’d have liked to have seen them involved in the report reveal as well. It would have sent out a message that the society is forward-looking, diverse, and in touch with the next generation of stakeholders and consumers.

That doesn’t mean Page members need to grow lumberjack beards, don plaid shirts, and start carrying skateboards. And they shouldn’t feel the need to try too hard. I also note that the overarching theme of the Spring Seminar is "Born Digital: How Maturing Millennials are Redefining Our Experiences as Consumers, Innovators, Employees and Citizens," which seems like a very progressive agenda.

As I said in my review of 2015 and my look forward to the year ahead, there’s a generational shift going on in the PR industry, which is particularly reflected on the client side. A significant amount of senior in-house PR pros announced their retirement in the past 18 months, whether to leave the profession completely, or at least to take themselves out of the 24/7 firing line.

GE’s Gary Sheffer, General Mills’ Tom Forsythe, Exxon’s Ken Cohen, Southwest Airlines’ Ginger Hardage, Kroger’s Lynn MarmerBridget Coffing from McDonald’s, Prudential’s Bob DeFillippo, and Rudolf Ramsauer at Nestlé are just a few of the senior leaders who moved on.

That’s a serious drain of talented individuals who are not afraid to provide that contrary voice and advise C-suite execs and CEOs that they might be doing something wrong and who know how to handle situations that require gravitas and experience.

But the exodus from the industry is also a sign that the skills required of a communications pro are changing, and will continue to do so exponentially. There’s a new generation coming up to take their place, with new attitudes and new skill sets dictated by the market.

Dave Samson’s aim as chairman is to make everything the Page Society does more relevant and actionable. "We must move beyond interesting thought leadership to actions members can take in the course of their jobs," he states.

He also points out what Arthur W. Page himself said: "Public relations is 90% about what you do, 10% about what you say."

Those are noble and progressive mission statements — I couldn’t agree more.

In advance of the society’s Spring Seminar, I hope delegates will take the opportunity to evolve the theory into practice and ensure the debate around the evolution of the CCO role isn't simply an academic exercise.

Because the pace of change in today’s industry and communications landscape dictates that time waits for no PR pro. I’m going to end by quoting, not for the first time, Progressive Insurance’s CMO Jeff Charney, who told the PRWeek Conference last year: "If you don’t like change, get out of PR. More has changed in the last five years than the previous 100."

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