A future of opportunity for chief communications officers

With the bounty of data about stakeholders that is available to enterprises - everything from their relationships, actions, interests, physical location, purchase behaviors, and so on - CCOs will develop highly personalized engagement through sophisticated data-driven systems.

Chevron's Dave Samson
Chevron's Dave Samson

The Page Society’s latest report on the New CCO makes the compelling case that the role of the CCO is increasingly critical to the ability of global enterprises to thrive in a highly competitive business environment. This is characterized by disruptive technology, rapidly shifting global demographics, sociopolitical trends, and the increasingly assertive demands of empowered activist stakeholders.

To meet the challenge, though, CCOs and their teams must equip themselves to lead in ways that would have seemed unthinkable to us even just a few years ago. In opening the Page Society’s Spring Seminar in New York in April, I emphasized that, if I were to interview today for my job at Chevron, where I lead communications and public affairs, and did so with only the experience that helped me secure the job 20 years ago, I would not get the job. It’s no surprise that the demands and requirements of the position are very different, and while my earlier experiences serve me well, it’s never been more essential to continuously expand my capabilities. This is indeed the dawn of the new CCO. 

Our report outlines three core roles for this new CCO:

The first is the foundational role of serving as a strategic advisor, steward of corporate reputation, and leader of corporate character and culture. This probably sounds familiar, but here’s what’s different: More than ever before, the successful CCO is a senior leader in the enterprise, relied upon for his or her expertise in business, political, social, and cultural understanding every bit as much as for his communications and stakeholder engagement expertise. And she deals with these issues breaking on multiple fronts.

The second is that of integrator, serving as the connective tissue that aligns corporate character and stakeholder engagement across the C-suite and the enterprise with multidisciplinary teams that operate across business functions. Increasingly, we see CCOs taken on enterprise-wide responsibility for projects that in the past would have gone to operational executives, but require the stakeholder engagement and communications skills that we have honed as corporate communicators.

The third and most critical role is that of builder of digital engagement systems. With the bounty of data about stakeholders that is available to enterprises – everything from their relationships, actions, interests, physical location, purchase behaviors, and so on – CCOs will develop highly personalized engagement through sophisticated data-driven systems. This is the beginning of an era where the communications function uses what it knows about stakeholders to systematically develop a deeper understanding of their interests and needs and consequently foster a deeper relationship with them. As the stakeholder universe becomes increasingly global and progressively more diverse, enterprises will need such automated processes to engage the masses – not just as segments, but as individuals.

Imagine if we could know more about the people we are trying to engage. We would know, for example, who and where they are, their job title, and what they share through social media. We could analyze what they’ve posted online to develop a view of their personality and tendencies – knowing from psycholinguistics that what we write and how we speak says a lot about us. Is he more extroverted or introverted? Does she like to try new things? Now imagine the ability to deeply know millions of individuals in this way, and use that insight to communicate and engage them personally. This won’t feel like a creepy invasion of privacy. Like any salesperson or marketer who knows her customer, enterprises will only be getting better at catering to peoples’ interests, needs, and expectations, in the way they want to be engaged, and at the right time. That’s the opportunity ahead for CCOs.

Steve Barrett, in an April column about the report, called for less theory and more practice; less old guard and more next generation. He’s right. The point of Page reports is not to publish theory, but to influence how people actually think about and practice communications. In essence, what we seek to do is understand reality, imagine what might be, and then make our vision actionable.

That’s why the Page experience is based on learning and sharing. It’s why we offer our most senior and high-potential team members the same opportunity to network through Page Up and the Future Leaders Experience. And it’s why we engage with other C-Suite executives in dialogue about how we can work together to the benefit of the companies we represent.

We will follow this report with additional work that will be more proscriptive, offering resources and training on the skills that CCOs will need to be successful in that future, and a framework for how enterprises build a data-driven system for creating personalized engagement with stakeholders.

As modern CCOs, we must take maximum advantage of all of the tools at our disposal. This requires adapting to our new reality by changing how we think and operate and how our companies interact with all stakeholders. We must do so not only for competitive reasons, but to unlock new kinds of business and societal value as well. This is the future that the new CCO can and must seize.

Dave Samson is general manager of public affairs at Chevron and a veteran of Oracle, Ketchum, Levi Strauss & Co., and IBM.

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