THOUGHT LEADER: Good news in a bad economy: signs point to areemergence of the CCO

First, let's get the bad news out of the way. Communications has been hit harder than any other corporate function in this economic downturn.

First, let's get the bad news out of the way. Communications has been hit harder than any other corporate function in this economic downturn.

This has been true across industries and at all levels. Many of us hoped - and believed - it would be different, including executive recruiters like me who specialize in communications. It was simply counterintuitive to think a company would sacrifice in tough times one of the things it needs most: a clear voice to help employees, customers, and shareholders understand why they should stay the course.

Communications also appeared to be reasonably recession-proof because it was moving more and more to the "C-Suite.

This was reflected in many ways, one of which was the emergence of the new title chief communications officer. My colleague and I did our first search with the CCO title in 1998. By the next year, close to half of our searches had that title.

And it was more than a title - it was a role that had as its peers the chief legal counsel and the chief financial officer. At the same time, more companies were elevating and expanding their communications functions in a variety of ways.

Then the market started to wobble. As companies braced, the pace of top communications searches actually increased. In fact, they rose at a rate far faster than the other "C-level

functions, largely because the other functions were far more embedded and had people in place. But the trend quickly reversed. In 2001, new hiring for senior communicators ground to a near halt, and top posts began to be eliminated. The old supply/distribution concept of LIFO (Last In, First Out) had hit the executive corridor with a vengeance.

Many CCOs just didn't have enough time to prove how strong the link is between corporate reputation and business performance. Meanwhile, the CFOs, the next hardest hit among corporate officers, were experiencing the opposite problem. No one had trouble connecting numbers and the business.

Next went the senior HR people, who became less critical as hiring froze and the incentive to upgrade employee programs diminished. Sitting General Counsels fared best, although far fewer companies added - or even replaced - this position over the last 18 months.

Now, the good news. The executive job market is coming back, and corporate officers are in front of the curve. Demand for CFOs and top HR pros is sharply on the rise. Search activity in these two functions is almost certainly a precursor to strong search activity in communications. Another indicator: clients are again speaking about the need to make communications a force in shaping and growing the business. CEOs are seeing signs of recovery, and they want to talk about it. And they're watching Enron - which serves as a powerful reminder of what happens when corporate reputation is destroyed. Communications, of course, couldn't save Enron. But once a company's reputation is destroyed, nothing else can save it either.

In a compressed timeframe, the corporate pendulum has swung from a sense of invincibility to a sense of vulnerability. As it settles someplace in between, attention is on lessons learned and goals redefined. Companies will rebuild executive teams with a different definition of the ideal candidate. They will focus less on those who can do the new thing, and more on those who have demonstrated solid business judgement in good times and bad. They will look for those who can build bridges across an organization - especially in light of the fact that two-thirds of CEOs last less than five years and almost half of all executives turn over in less than three.

Likewise, because developing internal talent pools will be linked more closely to corporate success, there will be a premium placed on people who can develop others. In short, the search will be for executives who can be trusted, personally and professionally.

This will be especially true for the CCO. The role will still be broad, in fact, broader - usually including internal/external communications, marketing communications, community relations, IR, and advertising. But emphasis will be on the fundamentals: business judgement, strong written and verbal skills, solid media relations and internal communications. It seems tough times have a way of reminding us of what really works.

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