At a meeting of Arthur W. Page Society members hosted at Bayer’s offices in Germany last October, Reidar Gjærum, who heads communications for Statoil, crisply summed up the role of today’s chief communications officer (CCO): “Interpreting society and the company’s place in it.”
This simple, yet profound, statement captures the complexity of the challenge facing the chief communications officer (CCO), or the head of public affairs, in today’s rapidly changing and radically different business environment.
It was just one of hundreds of insightful observations that informed the Arthur W. Page Society’s new report, The New CCO: Transforming Enterprises in a Changing World, which seeks to foresee how the communications function will evolve in coming years. Our point of view was shaped over two years by the observations of more than 450 senior leaders in corporate communications and business from around the world.
At the same Bayer session, Michael Merk, who leads communications for Steelcase, described the modern enterprise as a “complex adaptive system,” akin to an organism in nature, and the communications function as the mechanism through which the enterprise becomes aware of the environmental conditions – internally and externally – that necessitate adaptation. In a tumultuous business environment, those who evolve fastest and smartest are those who thrive.
In Dubai, at a similar event hosted by Mohamed Al Ayed of TRACCS, Christof Ehrhart, who heads corporate communications and responsibility at Deutsche Post DHL Group, keenly observed that the communications function of the past set out to explain the company to the world, whereas today its role is to explain the world to the company.
The Page Society’s work on The New CCO followed a previous report, Building Belief: A New Model for Activating Corporate Character and Authentic Advocacy, which described how the CCO helps the enterprise develop a character that’s deserving of trust and then builds trust with stakeholders, who then take actions that benefit the enterprise.
The new report takes a hard look at how the role of the CCO in the enterprise must change in order to be able to do the work described in this model.
A whole new world
Today’s enterprises operate in the most diverse, complex and fluid environment in the history of commerce, and the unyielding pace of technological advancement accounts for much of the disruption that is taking place. Mobile technology, a flexible workforce, and consumer participation have allowed innovative start-ups to challenge established players.
Consumers are hailing taxis via their phones, booking rooms in strangers’ homes on the other side of the world, and buying or selling countless items online. This is upending traditional business models and creating an on-demand economy that provides jobs, goods and services in new ways.
Data, big and small, are allowing for customised engagement between the enterprise and its customers and stakeholders. An app reminds parents when their infants need feeding. An omniscient digital assistant tells you about the weather, traffic and your schedule for the day. Products are recommended based on your purchasing behaviour.
People love the personalised service, but it’s a fine line between “that’s cool” and “that’s creepy.” What would you have said 20 years ago about allowing a multinational corporation to have access to your personal correspondence and your physical location at all times? Today these allowances are commonplace.
At the same time, the rise of authoritarian capitalism and concurrent gridlock and ineffectiveness in western democracies is complicating enterprise efforts to expand globally. Not only must we contend with different cultures and regulatory requirements, but we are frequently confronted with competition that plays by different rules and abides by different values.
Stakeholders, informed by transparency and empowered by technology that allows them to share information and motivate like-minded others, increasingly expect business not only to act responsibly, but also to actually solve global problems and create societal value.
According to Edelman’s brandshare 2014 report, people say it is important that a company: “communicates openly and transparently about how products are sourced and made” (68 per cent), “has a clear mission and purpose at its core” (58 per cent), and “uses its resources to drive change in the world” (52 per cent).
Together, all of these trends increase the pressure on business to fend off competitive threats, deal with challenging workplace issues and respond to societal expectations, all while managing ever more demanding and activist stakeholders. This places a premium on the broad stakeholder view that we possess as communicators, which is invaluable for trendspotting and managing issues, but requires a vastly more sophisticated understanding of these global economic, social, political and technological issues than was expected just a few short years ago.
The future of the CCO
Our report envisions three roles for the new CCO.
The first is what we’ve termed the “foundational” role. This is the most conventionally understood role – that of effective communicator, minder of corporate trust and reputation, builder of critical stakeholder relationships and adviser to leadership. But here’s what’s new: given the complicated and challenging business environment and stakeholder demands, the CCO of today and tomorrow must know more about global business, geopolitical and social issues than ever before, and must be able to think critically, make strategic decisions and be a competent leader and trusted advisor with credibility both inside and outside the organisation.
The second role is that of “integrator,” through which the CCO works to align the corporate character and purpose of the enterprise fully across business functions. Because the entire enterprise must be aligned behind a well-defined and authentic corporate character, and also must be involved in stakeholder engagement, the CCO must pursue partnerships across the C-Suite – with the chief information officer on data analytics and new digital platforms; with the chief human resources officer on corporate culture; with legal on issues and stakeholder management. Today’s communications function is no longer concentrated in a core team of professionals, but must integrate the efforts of everyone across the enterprise.
The final and most aspirational role of the new CCO is that of “builder of digital engagement systems.” Unlike the chief financial officer and the chief human resources officer, whose financial and personnel management systems permeate the enterprise, the CCO traditionally has not built systems and processes. That is about to change.
The advent of social media has made troves of data available about stakeholders. Analytical systems can know, for example, if and where an image was posted, perform textual analysis on the comments, count how many times it’s been shared, etc. In the future, sophisticated systems will allow computers to know what that image depicts, what it means, and interpret that information into insights about the person who posted it or shared it. This richer knowledge about people presents a tremendous opportunity to engage them in a far more personalised and effective way.
By understanding who stakeholders are, what they need, when they need it, and how they want it delivered, we can engage them in ways that do not feel like an intrusion, but rather like customised help. Customers can be engaged with tailored information about products and services and employees empowered by personalised tools and resources – all delivered through omni-channel platforms and informed by data.
Where in the past communicators sought to influence the few, who then influenced the many, now we must influence the many, who then influence many more. To engage stakeholders at scale while maintaining a trusting and personal relationship, the CCO can and will build digital systems that allow the enterprise to do so.
Fulfilling the promise
The next challenge we face is to work together to elevate our capabilities in order to achieve the promise of this aspirational report. We are already working on a project that will flesh out the steps needed to build a digital engagement system, and we are developing resources needed for communicators to improve their skills and capabilities to take on these three roles.
Members of both the Arthur W. Page Society and the European Association of Communication Directors are similarly committed to sharing insights and learning from each other. At our best, we inspire each other to achieve more than we might on our own, raising our game and helping our enterprises set and achieve a vision worthy of public trust.
The New CCO report helps all of us in corporate communications and public affairs see what our function can be and sets an ambitious agenda for us to pursue. We’re looking forward to the journey.