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From a growing body of research, we know that the percentage of Chief Communication Officers who are members of their organization’s highest-level board or management committee grows yearly. We know, as well, that CCOs report that they have more opportunities to input into senior management decision-making - and that their input is valued more.

The findings from reports such as those of the Arthur W. Page Society, the European Communication Monitor studies, Spencer Stuart/Weber Shandwick’s Rising CCO studies or the GAP studies from USC Annenberg, reveal that CCOs, increasingly, are seen and accepted as full fledged members of the dominant coalition or inner circle. Most interestingly, this placement within the inner power circle typically comes with a permanent seat of the highest-level board or management committee – but not necessarily a direct reporting arrangement with the CEO. In fact, the percentage of CCOs reporting directly to CEOs hasn’t changed much over the past decade. Various studies put that percentage somewhere at just over 50%, pretty much unchanged from earlier studies.

The question is: if CCOs are becoming independent and full members of the most senior committees - committees that lead on organizational strategic management - what is a CCO’s strategic role? From the research, it doesn’t appear to be simply a communication role. We are seeing examples in research of CCOs also being placed in charge of the organization’s separate marketing function, of having responsibility for CSR and sustainability or of participating more meaningfully in the organization’s governance and strategic direction challenges.

Certainly, the profession has pronounced for a higher calling. The Global Alliance has called for communication professionals to “define and maintain an organisation’s character and values; build a culture of listening and engagement; and instill responsible behaviours by individuals and organizations” (Melbourne Mandate) and to “aspire to a social purpose, serve social cohesion, and aim to bring communities together” (Madrid Momentum).

The Arthur W. Page Society (The Authentic Enterprise; The CEO View: The Impact of Communications on Corporate Character in a 24x7 Digital World) puts it in more mundane terms but with similar purpose when speaking of the CCO’s role in making corporate character: “be omniscient, or build systems for transparency; master new channels; never sleep; know the business inside and out; work well on management teams; and bring contacts to the table.”

Indeed, the research suggests that CCOs are becoming “strategic facilitators” (European Monitor 2011). That umbrella term encompasses a number of roles, such as the following.

CCOs help set organizational goals, not simply support them. Increasingly, CCOs contribute to the formulation of formal organizational goals found in strategic plans or like documents. Through formative research, environmental scanning and ‘listening’ (social media tracking for example), CCOs have intelligence and insight to put on the analytical table, at two distinct stages of the organization’s strategic management process.

The first is in the development of formal goals and strategies. The second is in the execution phase of these strategies at the business unit level. Here in the second, CCOs identify implementation issues or internal change management challenges or reordering in the external stakeholder environment. The CCO identifies obstacles to the execution of intended strategy and helps reframe organizational and business unit level goals and strategy. The CCO helps move the organization from a deliberate, formulated strategy to an emergent, re-formed strategy. Traditionally, CCOs would only support the execution of those deliberate goals and strategies - but today, they help identify and set emergent strategy.

These three roles constitute the CCOs collaboration in the strategic management of the organization:

  • As a participant in the setting of formal organizational and business unit level goals and strategies;
  • As an identifier of the issues and obstacles around strategy execution (relationship building, change management and communication being the main drivers of strategy execution); and
  • As a participant in the formulation of new, emergent strategy.

CCOs manage the PR/C function strategically. The CCO leads a function that:

  • Is integrated;
  • Is a management function separate from all other functions;
  • Practices the two-way symmetrical model of public relations;
  • Employs practitioners as strategists;
  • Embodies diversity; and
  • Uses the CCO in a managerial, not technical role (Generic Principles: Vercic, Grunig, L.A. & Grunig, J.E. 1996).

Managing strategically means employing a strategic management and behavioral approach - as well as a symbolic and interpretive approach. The first encompasses organizational strategic management, relationship building and behavioural change while the second emphasizes communication, messaging and image making. The former requires a strategic not technical orientation (Bronn, 2014), including management knowledge, business knowledge and management skills (Tench & Moreno 2015). Research by other authors “show that managerial role enactment is predominately determined by education and work experience” (Fieseler, Lutz & Meckel 2015) where managerial tasks include: “diagnosis,” “coaching,” “liaison,” and “execution.”

Managing strategically requires that the CCO invest in education, training and learning plans within the PR/C department. Since departmental employees follow different career routes to their current positions, many arriving lacking general management and business knowledge or even PR/C strategic and operational management knowledge, CCOs have found it imperative to train in order to retain talent. The need for the CCO to employ internal client ‘strategists’ (with strategic planning, stakeholder relationship, business decision-making; behavioural change; performance measurement knowledge) deepens a commitment to on-going education.

CCOs lead.
As with all functional heads, CCOs require the advanced communication and relationship technical and managerial skills and knowledge relevant to their PR/C functional area. The research suggests that they also require two types of leadership competencies (Gregory & Willis 2013). One is the ability to lead such a dynamic function. The other is the ability to lead within the organization’s inner circle.

Meng and Berger (2013) proposed a leadership model with six dimensions: “self-dynamics, team collaboration, ethical orientation, relationship building, strategic decision making capability, and communication knowledge management capability.” These authors state that these are attributes CCOs require if they are to be effective leaders and that the six attributes “are crucial for communication executives to expand their influence in the institutional context and generate desired communication outcomes.” Other studies have looked expressly at the CCO as department leader. For example, Jin (2010) found that: “Transformational leadership was preferred by public relations leaders, in which empathy played an essential role. Transformational leadership and empathy were found to be significant predictors of public relations leaders' competency in gaining employees' trust, managing employees' frustration and optimism, as well as taking stances toward employees and top management in decision-making conflicts.”

Transformation is on the CCOs daily agenda, be it crises, issues, change management, new policy, program or product rollouts or departmental employee engagement. Given the nature of the CCO role, its breadth across and around the organization and its needed depth on most, if not all issues, CCO leadership is all about learning, day in and day out. It’s about understanding scenarios, taking in and sorting the signals - by recognizing and creating patterns – and by extracting meaning from those patterns. CCOs must have the antennae up, constantly, in an open-minded way, free of any form of confirmation bias. If CCOs are to be influential, with their input and analysis valued, as independent and full members of the most senior committees, research shows that they must contribute to organizational strategic management and manage their department strategically. Like landscaping, PR/C strategic management is a combination of hardscape (research, measurement, strategic planning, organizational and operational structures, processes and mechanisms) and softscape (leadership).