In the early '90s, an article appeared in a trade publication about the CCO at Time Warner, who at the time was earning more than $1 million annually. It was a stunning revelation.
The level of compensation was so remarkable that the guy receiving it earned the nickname "The million-dollar PR man." At the time, most of us looked upon it as a wonderful aberration - something to dream about, but utterly unachievable.
Well, times have changed. In a compensation survey released by Korn/Ferry last year, there were about 60 million-dollar CCOs working at Fortune 500 companies. The combined annual compensation for each of these people was more than $1 million, which included base salary, bonus, and an annual equity grant.
The first question that comes to mind is - are they worth it? Should any PR executive be paid more than $1 million a year?
My answer, not surprisingly, is an unequivocal yes.
To start with, let's put things into context. We are talking about a universe of probably one-tenth of 1% of the total PR workforce. And these men and women work at the very highest end of the market. To be specific, they are the prominent communications officers in corporations with minimum annual revenues of $12 billion.
But even so, why does this select few deserve the big bucks?
I guess the easiest answer is because their job is really, really difficult and because there is a lot riding on their performances. These people have the ability to save their companies billions of dollars through insight, courage, and wisdom. They are often the last stop in preventing a global enterprise from charging off a reputational cliff.
In the midst of a crisis, it is the CCO who must stand up and make the difficult case to define the right course of action for a company's reputation. They fight to defend or advocate an expensive solution, and demand absolute transparency, despite pressure from overwhelming forces in the room whose focus is to limit legal and financial exposure.
Making these decisions takes more than just courage. It takes wisdom, diplomacy, and years of experience to know precisely when it really is necessary to lay everything on the line.
The best PR people know that you can only bang your fist on the table with a senior management team a select few times, and that you better be right when you do. I've met one too many communications advisers who have fallen in love with lecturing the C-suite about the moral high road. As you can guess, management tires of this quickly.
The senior leadership team of any Fortune 200 company is a tough crowd. It is made up of smart men and women who have risen to the top of their organizations through intelligence, savvy, and steely determination. They have decades of blue-chip experience, and possess keen analytical minds that love to punch holes through the logic of every well-intentioned presentation. They are demanding, exacting, and not particularly forgiving.
And the communications chief (unlike the chief technology officer, the general counsel, or the head of engineering), has to defend turf that everyone in the room believes they have substantial expertise in.
In a nutshell, these million- dollar PR execs have to be persuasive, wise, and enormously self-confident. They also have to be right when it matters most.
Perhaps that's why the same survey also found that the average job tenure of these million-dollar PR people is only 3.3 years.
Don Spetner has served as CCO for Nissan North America, Sun-America, and Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.