Over the last year, we've seen embarrassing and career-ending PR fiascos involving CEOs: A congressional meltdown over auto executives' transportation modes; news of mind-bogglingly expensive office décor, and the list goes on.
CEOs must make sure that communications is at the table at all times. Today, bungled communications are as potentially crippling to an organization as high-profile litigation or earnings restatements. And yet, in 60% of companies surveyed by the Corporate Executive Board in 2008, corporate communications reported to someone other than the CEO. That's up from 43% of companies surveyed in 2006.
Having corporate communications report to a division other than the CEO can be a good strategy at times. For example, if your company is facing a firestorm of product litigation, having corporate comms under the legal umbrella is wise.
Yet, these survey results clearly indicate confusion about corporate communications' place as a partner in advancing business strategy and safeguarding reputation. In contrast, functions like finance almost always report to the CEO. What they do for a business – and the risks of not having them at the table – is well understood.
Not having corporate communications at the table where it can be deeply involved at the highest level is a risk factor. Today, everything is about communication. CEOs must be reminded constantly that every decision you make and everything you do, down to your comportment and the company you keep, and yes, what transportation mode you choose, is a message about you, your company, and your industry. As always, it's all about perception and reputation, reputation, reputation.
Once a good reputation is lost, it takes years to rebuild. Moreover, in the Internet age, the wall between public and private is crumbling. The Internet has also ushered in the age of authenticity and a changing social contract between business and the public. Today, people expect more of companies and the people who run them. They expect them to do as they say. If they don't, you can rest assured there will be a blog about it, replete with videotape. And the damage will be permanent unless you can manage the fallout effectively.
Communications is an integral part of the decision-making process, asking questions like, “How will customers, investors, employees, government officials, and the general public react to this decision? Is there a better way?” Communications must be at the table to help make the good decisions and keep the bad decisions – the ones that will destroy your company's reputation or make the CEO a personal laughingstock – from ever being made.
Linda E. Dunbar is a senior corporate communications consultant with more than 20 years of experience working for leading global organizations. Most recently, she was head of global corporate communications at Dow Jones.