Secrets to upward mobility for CCOs

Becoming CCO used to be seen as the pinnacle of achievement for a PR professional - but there's no reason why communicators shouldn't set their sights much higher.

MillerCoors' Pete Marino has taken on P&L responsibility for the brewer's craft beer division.
MillerCoors' Pete Marino has taken on P&L responsibility for the brewer's craft beer division.

At its best, the role of chief communications officer is the glue that holds an organization together, interacting with every significant department in an enterprise.

But very often that unique ability to provide consensus and strategic wisdom across an organization stalls at the CCO office.

There are notable exceptions, such as Ken Frazier at Merck who rose from head of public affairs to become CEO, and Jon Iwata at IBM, who ascended from CCO to become chief brand officer, responsible for stewardship of the tech company’s overall brand and positioning it as a global agenda-setter.

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule and it is still rare for a CCO to rise much higher in an organization.

One welcome recent additional example of upward mobility is Pete Marino at MillerCoors, who was recently promoted to president of an important business development arm at the brewer, with overall P&L responsibility for the unit.

As Marino told me on our latest edition of The PR Week podcast: "It’s an interesting opportunity for me to get some commercial experience."

Tenth and Blake is the division of MillerCoors that oversees the Chicago-headquartered company’s fast-expanding craft and import beer portfolio, which Marino explains is pretty much where all the growth is occurring in the brewing business at the moment.

The division has already purchased four craft brewers from around the U.S. in the past 18 months: Saint Archer in San Diego; Hop Valley in Eugene, Oregon; Revolver in Granbury, Texas; and Terrapin in Athens, Georgia.

Tenth and Blake also houses Killian’s Irish Red and Grolsch and import brewers such as Peroni and Pilsner Urquell, and it has just done a deal with Heineken in the Mexican beer category to import, market, and distribute Sol – leaving the Dutch brewer to concentrate on its Dos Equis and Tecate marques.

Marino joined MillerCoors five years ago from PR firm Olson, rising from VP of communications to CCO and chief public affairs officer. He officially starts an additional role as president of Tenth and Blake today (September 1), succeeding Scott Whitley who is retiring after 36 years in the business.

It’s an industry that has been totally disrupted in the space of a generation. In 1978 there were fewer than 50 brewers in the U.S; today there are over 5,000.

"There was a burgeoning of craft beers in the 90s, which receded a little bit and then exploded again about 10 years ago," says Marino. "Millennials and the generation behind them are used to a tremendous amount of choice in their food and beverage options, and anything else they come into contact with."

He explains that palates are now more demanding in terms of flavor choices and styles. This has also exhibited itself in the mixology movement in spirits and a much wider range of wines available on the market.

Beer has experienced exactly the same trend. Distributors have gone from carrying an average of 200 SKUs to around 1,100, with 30-40 different suppliers rather than three to four.

So it’s an exciting space for Marino to flex his wider business muscles, and he has some excellent advice for PR pros who want to move up into more senior positions in their companies.

"PR people are uniquely qualified for interesting roles beyond communications, but they need to understand the business," he points out. "A lot of people went into PR and comms because they were scared of math and not prepared to take accounting, economics, and finance. But that world is changing and PR and comms people really need to lean into and understand the business side of things."

Marino advises CCOs to go sit with their CFO and ask them for tutorials on how to read a balance sheet or why certain decisions have been made – and soak that info in.

"Go sit with your strategy team or your M&A team and have them explain what they’re looking for and why and where is the white space in the portfolio," he adds. "Go sit with your marketing team. When you’re in a corporation you have the ability to do that."

He notes that it’s a little more challenging to get this wider business insight on the agency side, but he is a big believer in continuing professional education, whether it’s an MBA or a few classes on the side that don’t necessarily lead to a certificate.

"Go learn your business and, once you do that, PR people will start to accelerate into the worlds beyond," he implores.

As Marino also says, every company is wrestling with reputation management and storytelling at the moment. "How are we going to tell shareholders we’re winning; how are we going to persuade consumers?" he explains. "These are skills PR people innately have."

It is great advice from Marino and very well timed – his whole interview is worth listening to by the way, one of our best podcasts.

Richard Edelman used his 6 A.M. blog this week to send out a call to action to a PR industry that has had a rough summer, with lots of layoffs, poor agency holding company Q2 figures, and organizational restructures principally aimed at taking costs out of firms.

Edelman’s message is that clients need PR more than ever and that it is "our time." As Marino is demonstrating, this is true not only at the communications level of organizations but onward and upward from that.

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