Why PR is finally getting a promotion

Change can be good, but when it's rampant, stress is an opportunity for PR executives to be promoted even further.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

The C-suite is getting a wave of new leadership from an unfamiliar source: corporate communications.

Why comms execs? Corporations require their unique skills during times of drastic change, say industry experts, recruiters, and consultants. PR executives are also looked at as a ballast in storms of controversy, giving corporate and crisis communications skills a new premium in change situations.

"In this world, where change is now a constant, your change leadership skills are becoming more important [in some cases] than your operational business skills to make that change happen," says Michelle Kent, principal at KPMG and leader of its U.S. advisory change management practice.

Kent adds that agility and out-of-the-box thinking are necessities in change situations, and those skills can be found anywhere in a business. "Assuming because they’re PR or comms that they have it or don’t, that’s wrong," she says. "We need to stop focusing on titles, and focus on the experiences they’ve had and skills they can bring to bear."

The latest example of a corporation elevating a seasoned PR executive to general management is General Motors, which named David Albritton as president of the recently launched GM Defense unit. Albritton’s promotion followed GM’s disclosure that it is idling plants and laying off thousands of workers as it adjusts its business model to changing consumer tastes.

"I’d never considered it," Albritton says, about moving beyond comms. "It was an interesting opportunity brought to me [because of] my closeness to the business partners and my understanding of the overarching strategy."

The Home Depot has also been forced to transform its business model. It’s pursuing an "interconnected retail" strategy in response to changing consumer habits, according to Stacey Tank, VP of home services at the retailer.

Tank was promoted to her position after three years leading comms at Home Depot. She says the modern chief communications officer has been forced to develop a business proficiency since most report to the CEO and are members of their company’s management team.

"That expectation," she says, via email, "demands a higher-quality leader who is a businessperson first and also gives the CCO a different level of capability-building exposure, preparing them to step into broader roles, including leading P&Ls."

If an organization is going through a turnaround, uniting a workforce under a common goal is critical. Because PR is a broad discipline that must understand all of an organization’s functions, it can meet the challenge of strategically aligning all of an organization’s employees, says Seema Kathuria, MD at executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates.

"When you look at the corporate comms pros moving into those [general manager] roles, it’s because they have a holistic knowledge of what’s going on in the business," Kathuria says. "They know how to influence, they know the pain points, they understand the external factors, and they think day and night of geopolitical and social issues because that’s what they’re advising the C-suite on."

Daniel Heiser, chair of the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship in the Driehaus College of Business at DePaul University, attributes this trend to the stress organizations are facing and heightened reputation issues.

"Organizations often look beyond traditional career pathways when they’re under stress. When they find themselves in the public eye for the wrong reasons, it’s a natural reaction to turn to someone with a sensitivity to PR issues for leadership," he explains. "The ability to communicate the deeper mission of an organization is becoming increasingly important as the younger generation of buyers and workers seek meaning in their work and the products they purchase."

That isn’t to say that a corporate communications executive can coast into a top corner office job. If PR pros are going to continue making inroads into general management, they must strengthen their financial acumen, which is an area where they have historically lagged, says Matt Davis, longtime head of corporate affairs at Dow Chemical.

When Davis joined Dow Chemical three decades ago, it was uncommon for recent graduates going into PR to have a background in finance. To make up for that, Davis took college courses on accounting and financial dynamics to learn how to boil down financial information into messages that tell a story.

The broadening of expertise was important in Davis’ career, but change played its part. The 2008 financial crisis jump-started a decade of change at Dow. Not only did it acquire two companies, it also announced a blockbuster $130 billion merger with DuPont in 2015.

Davis, then a 30-year veteran, was named as president of North America for Dow to steer the company’s largest P&L for the better part of three years. Davis is planning to retire at the end of 2018, with his position split into three roles, as the company undergoes a major series of changes. The materials science business, Dow, will spin off in April, followed by specialty products segment DuPont and the agricultural-focused Corteva two months after.

"When I came into the company, that’s not to say PR wasn’t important, but they didn’t have the seat at the table we now have," Davis says. "A lot of that is the growth of the impact comms has on the bottom line. I don’t see that changing."

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