At the start of the year, Bill Wohl, former VP of PR at software firm SAP, joined Hewlett-Packard to assume the newly created role of chief communications officer, taking a seat at the C-suite table and reporting directly to CEO Léo Apotheker - a first for the IT giant.
"You can't be a true counselor to the business if you don't have the seat at the table and aren't directly counseling the top executives," says Wohl.
In 2010, HP went through a number of crises, including the resignation of former CEO Mark Hurd amidst allegations of sexual harassment and falsified expenses, as well as deep budget cuts. At that time, the head communications function was under marketing and fell under the direction of the company's chief technology officer. Wohl was installed in the new CCO role three months after Apotheker was hired. Both were former colleagues at SAP.
"Apotheker figured out that communications had to be lifted up," he adds. "His decision was a combination of factors: 'I want someone I trust in the job, who is experienced enough to help lift up the organization, who knows me enough as an executive, and who can hit the ground running.'"
Proactivity pays off
Over the last five years, the head of communications post has truly evolved into a more proactive role, one that, more often than not, takes a seat at the C-level table. Gone are the days of reactive press releases and media clips.
Nearly 50% of CCOs report to CEOs today, up from about four out of 10 three years ago, says Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick.
"They are more of a business partner with the CEO than they were a few years ago," she says. "It's much more about creating value for the company and reducing any risk it is under. CCOs must be seasoned and have crisis management experience under their belts today. I've heard many CCOs say that every day there's a battle for defending their company's reputation."
Instead of primarily implementing how news is delivered, HP's Wohl says he can now bring to the head table the outside world's perspective, those most influenced, such as the press, industry analysts, bloggers, and customers.
"When a company makes a de- cision, it wants to understand how it will be perceived, read, and consumed by the external and internal worlds," he says. "If communications is not at the table, you wind up in a very reactive position. We can say if that's the direction you're going, here's how the market is going to perceive that. If that's not the outcome you're looking for, then let's reconsider whether this is the right decision at the right time."
Tom Kowaleski, VP of corporate communications at BMW North America, agrees.
"When properly organized and structured, and the reporting relationship up through senior management is done properly, communications groups can be a voice of the outside world bring- ing in various perspectives and in- sights that stakeholder groups have of the company," says Kowaleski, who reports to BMW North America CEO Jim O'Donnell. "They can coalesce all that insight so there can be a harmony."
While the Internet and social media have played a huge role in the evolution of a company's communications head, a matur-ing of the profession has also occurred, says Gaines-Ross.
"There's such a wide portfolio of stakeholders that companies have to deal with, so the threats or any opportunities can come from anywhere," she adds. "It's not just Wall Street anymore. He or she really must understand the business across the world and across all the business units, as well as have the same business acumen as his or her peers in the C-suite."
The CCO's ever- evolving function
The Rising CCO III study, conducted by Weber Shandwick and Spencer Stuart, found:
- Crisis management as a critical skill set was considered nearly twice as important in 2010 (61%) as it was three years before (33%)
- Forty-one percent of CCOs said social media/blogging is a growing function of the job last year, up from 28% who said so in 2008
Source: The 2010 survey polled 127 CCOs from companies based in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific