Outlook for the Chief Communications Officer Role

by Beverly Harvey

What You Need to Know Right Now to Level Up as a CCO

Chief Communications Officer (CCO), a relative newcomer to the C-Suite, is often characterized as a more contemporary name for Public Relations Officer. But since, arguably, corporate communications has changed more since the turn of this century than just about any other organizational function, the CCO role is viewed as increasingly strategic and important while encompassing much more than public relations.

Social media leads the list of changes affecting corporate communication, with CCOs, as Patrick Hanley describes, “aggressively and proactively manag[ing] their brand narrative in a digital ecosystem where organizations lack control of how they’re talked about online.” Forbes Communications Council member Lou Casale adds that in the current climate, “any public comment can be misinterpreted or misrepresented, causing damage to a business’s reputation and brand.”

Other changes include globalization, a 24/7 news cycle that cries out for immediacy, increasing importance of corporate social responsibility, the growth of branding and reputation management, a mandate for proactive and immediate crisis communication, and the need for a consistent, cohesive message and communication strategy. Hanley notes that CCOs are “guardians of company culture, values, and beliefs,” organizational elements often most effectively conveyed through stories. “The CCO helps the organization connect the dots of vision, purpose, values, beliefs and strategy to express the company’s character in a story that will resonate with its customers,” Casale writes. Some organizations even have Chief Storytelling Officers.

Just over a third of CCOs report to the CEO, with the rest reporting to other C-Suite officers, including 12 percent who report to Chief Marketing Officers. CCOs are often corporate-communication directors/VPs or public-relations directors/VPs before stepping into the CCO role.

Key Competencies for the CCO Role

In seeking a CCO, organizations look for individuals with 10 years of experience in a given sector. In 2017, McKinsey studied job postings for CCOs, identifying these as the most mentioned competencies for the role: Team orientation, collaborative approach, negotiation skills, mentoring abilities, versatility, credibility, and relationship-building skills. A bachelor’s degree is often a sufficient foundation for this role, though some employers prefer a master’s degree (about a quarter of CCOs hold a master’s degree).

Role-specific competencies are also needed for CCOs. In your career-marketing communications, showcase the additional CCO competencies and characteristics on this list you possess:

  • Communications skill, including solid writing
  • Ability to spot trends early
  • Talent-management skills
  • Stakeholder management
  • Team leadership
  • Strategic thinking
  • Media and social-media knowledge
  • Capabilities in research and metrics
  • Public-relations and storytelling skills
  • Crisis-communication skills
  • Courage to step up “to address difficult issues, saying what needs to be said” (identified by almost half – 49 percent – of CCOs from Fortune 500 companies surveyed by Korn Ferry).

 Level-Up Tips

Here are a few suggestions for those seeking to break into the CCO role, expand their horizons in an existing CCO role, or even rise beyond the CCO role:

  • Be able to answer the “what” and “how” questions. A report from the Arthur W. Page Society examining the CCO role suggests that CCOs should be able to describe “What value do we create?” and “How do we create it?”
  • Look for organizations that lack a consistent message and don’t already have a CCO. Is the user experience of visiting a given organization’s website consistent with talking to customer service, visiting the company’s retail or physical space, and following the organization on social media? Carving a niche for yourself based on an employer’s shortcomings is a delicate proposition, but the lack of a consistent message and experience can point to the need to create a CCO role. Carefully proposing such a role to an organization without being overly critical can be an effective path to the CCO position.
  • Aspire to be an elite corporate-affairs executive. A Korn-Ferry study of CCOs identifies “a small and distinctive subset of corporate communications of best-in-class corporate affairs officers [who] shoulder a broadening scope of responsibilities and an increasing mandate to act as high-level strategic advisors to CEOs, and they frequently serve as members of the senior leadership team.” The key to this elite status appears to be broad mastery of corporate communications, government relations, community relations, employee relations, marketing, brand/reputation, investor relations, and more.
  • Become an integrator. The Korn-Ferry CCO report cites a mandate for “greater integration of communications with other functions, particularly around creating and executing strategy.” Indeed, “CCOs are working more closely than ever with their C-Suite contemporaries,” reports “The New COO” from the Arthur W. Page Society, “co-leading on issues like diversity and corporate culture with the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), marketing and sales promotion with the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) and building digital systems in partnership with the Chief Information Officer (CIO).” The ability to drive cross-functional collaboration and integration around strategic priorities is seen as key. The best way to be an integrator is to nurture partnerships with C-Suite colleagues.

 CCO Trends to Watch

  • Mandate for creativity. “In 2019 and beyond, it is a must for CCOs to foster a continuous flow of creativity,” writes Gregg Apirian and Chuck Gose of the communications platform Social Chorus. “This starts with building a diverse team made up of data-driven specialists and ‘creatives’ such as visual designers, copywriters, video producers, graphic illustrators, and web/mobile engineers,” they assert. This creativity, the authors note, is critical to engaging and activating employees. CCOs should “build a connection through culture, communication, and technology,” Apirian and Gose advise.
  • From employee engagement to employees as communicators. The Gartner 2019 Agenda Poll identifies driving employee engagement as a top priority in corporate communications. The goal is “enabling employees to understand how strategic goals relate to their own work is the most important driver of employee performance,” says Gartner’s Jordan Bryan. At the same time, Staffbase observes that “all employees are becoming communicators.” As employees communicate more publicly about their employers and roles via social media, their understanding of this alignment between strategy and their own work becomes even more critical. This alignment can help generate what a study by grad students at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University calls “a shift from employee engagement to employee activism where employees are empowered and can truly connect with a company’s purpose.”
  • Authenticity addresses many corporate-communication challenges. Authenticity generates trust, and as Matt Abrahams, writing for the company Quantified Communications, writes, “that trust builds up the leader’s credibility and breeds confidence in her capability and intentions, which motivates greater engagement and effort from her audience members, peers, and subordinates.” Abrahams defines authenticity as “the audience’s perception that a speaker’s words match his or her beliefs and actions” and notes that authentic leaders are audience-centric, open, warm, and present with their audiences. Storytelling is an effective technique for conveying authenticity.

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