An existential moment for in-house communications leads

CEOs are looking for help as they adapt to a world of permanent disruption and they're not fussy about where they get it from.

It’s been a big couple of weeks for news about in-house communications leaders, chief communications officers, or CCOs as we know them better on PRWeek.

American Express tapped Jennifer Skyler from WeWork, or The We Company, as chief corporate affairs officer, replacing Mike O’Neill, who is retiring from the credit card behemoth after 28 years’ service.

Under Armour’s SVP of corporate communications, Kelley McCormick, is stepping down after two years "to explore new opportunities." A search is on for her successor, during which time she will continue to serve as an adviser to CEO Kevin Plank, who last night welcomed President Donald Trump to Baltimore.

Cargill’s VP of global corporate affairs and CCO Devry Boughner Vorwerk left her role in early August and has started up her own consultancy. Her oversight duties are being shared by chief counsel Anna Richo and head of business operations and supply chain Ruth Kimmelshue. The CCO role will not be replaced.

And, last week, CCO Jennifer Erickson departed GE for Mastercard after holding that role since September 2018. Her duties at GE will now be subsumed within CMO Linda Boff’s portfolio and will again not be replaced.

Only a few weeks ago I wrote about the disappearance of the CMO position at companies including Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s, Uber, Taco Bell and Lyft, with the chief communications executive at those firms taking on more responsibility to fill the gaps.

So what’s going on?

A study released this week by Page, the trade organization for chief communications officers, suggests CCOs are taking on more responsibilities than ever, managing brands, working on corporate purpose and handling new sets of digital tools.

In The CCO as Pacesetter, Jon Iwata, Page’s chair for thought leadership and former IBM chief communicator and marketer, attributes the disruption to the fact that CEOs describe the current business climate as an "existential moment" for their companies – as such, the same is true for the CCO.

In fact, there is a lot of change in all C-suite functions. Page president Roger Bolton notes that all businesses are trying to evolve quickly into something different, in a world disrupted and driven by cloud computing, AI and platforms.

"There are better ways to do things and lots of possibilities for innovators to disrupt industries," adds Bolton. "These things used to happen once in a generation, now it’s happening to every company in every industry all at once."

Moving forward, that’s the way life is - and CEOs are looking for help in navigating this. "If the CCO doesn’t step up, the CEO creates a new chief experience officer. If the CMO doesn’t shape up, they create a new chief transformation officer or something," says Bolton.

He believes it’s not about the CCO or CMO position going away, it’s more about who can do the work on a company-by-company basis based on the availability of talent within each organization.

"If the CCO doesn’t step up, they’re gone," Bolton concludes. "CEOs are desperate for help and they’ll take it anywhere they can get it."

The job is also very different depending on what type of industry you’re working in, so the operational scenario for a large energy company is the total opposite of, for example, a disruptive DTC etailer.

But there are some skills common to all communicators in this environment if they are to be the instigators of change, or "pacesetters" as Page dubs them: deep understanding of the business; global social, political and economic change; the ability to be persuasive within the enterprise and build partnerships across the C-suite; and better digital engagement systems.

Bolton says marketing is still way ahead of communications in the latter respect, with its point of sale data and so on. But he believes the same kind of data is now available to CCOs too, but they haven’t properly tapped into it yet and stepped up, either externally or internally.

As IBM CCO Ray Day, quoted in the Page report, says: "Most of us leading comms functions today have degrees in mass communications and have spent decades perfecting that model. Yet the world has moved on to micro-communications and extreme personalization. And that’s our opportunity – as our marketing colleagues realized many years ago.

"We need to reinvent ourselves, reskill our teams and change our priorities to focus on how people consume information today and will tomorrow, rather than operating in our comfort zones."

Some CCOs are definitely expanding their portfolio and extending influence further across the C-suite. This week I spoke to Michelle Weese, general secretary at Danone.

Weese is responsible for the food and beverage company’s corporate brand and communications teams, plus corporate social responsibility, public affairs and government relations. But she also oversees Danone’s general counsel, legal, regulatory and compliance group; competitive intelligence and security, food safety, and scientific affairs.

That’s a compelling and influential breadth of influence, and it’s great to see a PR professional operating at the heart of the enterprise in such a manner.

PRWeek and Boston University will soon unveil our second annual Communications Bellwether Survey, and this will shed more light on the current and future state of the profession. It will also point the lens in the opposite direction and deal with some of the frustrations CCOs encounter in managing up to their C-suites and attempting to drive their companies through the disruption.

Because the existential moment identified by the Page report is just as problematic from the CCO’s point of view as it is from the CEO’s.

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