As the line between disciplines blurs, we must redefine the CCO’s mandate

The role of chief communications officer (CCO) has gained noticeable prominence over the past decade.

Time to make the CCO a key stakeholder, argues Jonathan Dong
Time to make the CCO a key stakeholder, argues Jonathan Dong

More and more communication directors have moved up the corporate hierarchy and become an important presence on the management team, reporting directly to the chief executive.

Their ascent has been essential to protect and sustain corporate reputation.

In the meantime, the proliferation of social and digital media has fundamentally changed the way people acquire and distribute information. Smartphone-friendly social-media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WeChat have made every person an audience and a reporter at once.

The digitally connected world has also intensified the flattening of boundaries between issues of interest among different audience groups. So much so that the spillover effect could far outweigh the original intent, raising new risk considerations across all engagement activities.

Examples abound.

A promotional film by a fashion brand which was meant to be humorous from the producer’s perspective was viewed as culturally offensive in one market.

It triggered a nationwide boycott and caused significant damage to the business.

In other instances, during crisis some reporters chose to call and quote customer services hotline staff who gave an answer not strictly in line with the company position, adding complexity to the effective management of the situation.

In one case, a popular radio host put a member of hotline staff on the air before she was aware of it.

Now, more than ever, the daunting challenge facing all companies is how to maintain 'one voice' communication throughout the organisation, especially during a crisis, and how to communicate correctly to avoid inadvertently alienating certain audience groups.

Traditionally, the communications function has been departmentalised into subsets such as corporate, marketing, consumer and brand communication.

This has so far worked well by sharpening the focus on target audience groups.

However, as the line between these areas has been blurred as a result of the disruptive media landscape, it requires a reassessment and, hence, expansion of the CCO mandate.

There is ample reason to consolidate more communication responsibilities under the CCO to enable companies more effectively cope with the new reality.

Initially companies should look at the following three areas:

  • Make the CCO a mandatory stakeholder in the vetting process for all promotional materials, including marketing, consumer and brand communication. The CCO is well positioned to ensure correctness of the messages across all audiences. Frankly, many crises could have been avoided if there had been a rigorous vetting process in the first place.
  • Make brand and product social-media community managers dotted-line direct reports to the CCO. Such social-media portals, especially in consumer-facing industries, are far more interactive with the general public than the corporate website is. Community managers always find themselves having to play first-line defense for the company over public affairs topics. Therefore, stronger oversight of this group by the CCO is important to ensure that they maintain the same level of sophistication and discipline with corporate messages as their corporate spokesperson colleagues.
  • The after-sales customer service hotline is usually managed by sales and marketing as part of the overall customer engagement effort. For reasons mentioned above, there is a compelling reason to switch this function to the auspices of the CCO to ensure that the hotline does not become a weaker link in communication.

Jonathan Dong is a partner at Brunswick Group

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