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Corporate PR Strategy: Where's the CCO?

Virgil ScudderBy Virgil Scudder, Communication Expert; Author, "World Class Communications"

This is an excerpt from "World Class Communication: How great CEOs win with the public, shareholders, employees, and the media," by Virgil Scudder and Ken Scudder (Oct 2, 2012)

"Public relations as a function of executive management is central to the success of the corporation." — Portion of Arthur W. Page Society vision statement

Does your company have a CCO? If so, you may be the only one. If not, I think it’s something you should consider.

I don’t know of a single company that has a position called "Chief Communication Officer" (CCO), yet I believe every company should. It would be appropriate recognition of the importance of the role the PR leader plays. He or she should be part of the C-suite and report directly to the CEO.

C-level titles have exploded in recent years: Chief Information Officer, Chief Accounting Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, and so on. A lot of these didn’t exist 10 to 20 years ago. Why not a CCO?

PR Must Report Directly to the CEO

In too many companies, the public relations head reports to departments such as marketing, human resources, or even legal. This limits that person’s effectiveness. After working with public relations professionals and leaders of corporations for over 30 years, I do not believe that a CEO can be fully successful without a close and interactive relationship with a competent head of communications.

Some enlightened organizations do have the head of the public relations function in direct communication with the top officer today, but far too many do not.

The public relations director, or head of corporate communications as companies increasingly call the position, is the eyes and ears of the organization: the person who can best spot an opportunity for favorable publicity and act as the "canary in the coalmine," the person who can sense trouble before anyone else in the organization does.

Let’s look more closely at an example of the latter. When the leadership of Susan G. Komen for the Cure cut off breast cancer screening funding for Planned Parenthood in an apparent surrender to right-wing pressure groups, a firestorm erupted that sent Komen reeling. The organization lost millions of dollars in contributions and sustained serious damage to a positive reputation that had been built over decades.

A competent public relations counselor, sitting as a C-level officer in the meeting in which the fateful decision was made, would likely have strongly warned against the move and perhaps gone so far as to offer a resignation if the policy was enacted.

There are numerous other examples in recent years in which organizations have found themselves in turbulent waters when input from the right CCO would have steered them away from trouble.

What Does Corporate Public Relations Do?

In too many companies, the role of public relations is misunderstood and undervalued. It is seen as a function of marketing, or a unit created only to grind out news releases, Facebook posts, or newsletters.

True, those are valid and useful public relations functions. But they are generally the responsibility of lower-paid specialists who handle them well. It is poor utilization of resources to have a competent head of public relations engaging in such chores.

The head of public relations should be seen as a counselor and strategist. But many who now have that relationship with the CEO have told me that they are hampered by their title and lack of executive conference room access in dealing with C-level executives.

A good example comes in the legal arena. While the situation is changing somewhat, many corporate lawyers still have a "just say ‘no comment’ " policy. The fact is that in legally sensitive matters, top management, lawyers, and PR experts need to work in concert, particularly if a company’s reputation is at stake.

I have too often seen CEOs sit idly by while a corporate attorney, operating from good intentions but focused only on the legal arena, lays out a policy that damages a company’s goodwill. The total impact on the company, not just the legal impact, needs to be taken into consideration.

For example, not to publicly answer charges that a company’s products are unsafe simply because the matter is going to court is a very foolish policy. Business will undoubtedly suffer.

True, there are things that can’t be said, and comments on the particular case must be very limited, but silence can be perceived as guilt. Ask yourself this question: when is the last time you heard a journalist say "The company refused to speak with us" and you thought, "Well, they’re probably innocent"?

Lawyer Jodi A. Janacek discussed this in the February 2009 issue of Young Lawyers magazine. She claimed that in a high-profile case, with a high level of media attention, it might become necessary to bring public relations experts into the inner fold. She noted, "Advice from, and management of, the media by a public relations firm in certain instances might make a difference in maintaining a somewhat unbiased jury pool, settling, obtaining a favorable verdict, or minimizing the amount of damage."

"No comment" is never a good answer. Giving the public relations head a seat at the head table and a voice in the discussion would often prevent problems of public perception without damaging the legal case.

Working with Your Head of Communications

Eric Kraus, senior vice president of corporate communications and public affairs of Covidien, doesn’t have the CCO title per se; but he enjoys what is most important — a close relationship with CEO Joe Almeida. Kraus puts it this way: "A direct line between the head of communications and the CEO is critical. The communication officer has to have that direct link and partnership to be able to capture the voice of the CEO and work with other direct reports on a peer-to peer basis. You have to have a ‘joined-at-the-hip’ relationship or you’re not going to have a strong corporate brand. It just doesn’t work."

Olof Persson, the head of Volvo Group, the big Swedish manufacturer of trucks, buses, and construction equipment agrees, saying, "You need to build a trust between the two of you. You have to find someone who understands you as a person in order to find the right style, in order to find the right level, in order to prep you with the right data, and also make sure that they are one step ahead in thinking what might or might not happen."

If a person is to be given a C-level title and the authority that goes with it, it’s essential that the right person be selected for the job. Just what should a CEO look for in filling this role?

  • Experience. No one can properly handle this job without a significant background in dealing with a wide variety of corporate crises and opportunities. Part of the job is spotting reputation threats before they become full-blown and warning top management of the potential damage. In addition, the person needs to be able to properly advise theCEO and other top officials as to what media or public speaking opportunities are right for the company.
  • Business knowledge. While the CCO does not have to have the managerial skills of the CEO or the financial acumen of the CFO, a solid knowledge of business and the current business climate is essential.
  • Strong people skills. To be successful, this person must be both likable and persuasive. He or she will have to tell people things they don’t want to hear and do it the right way. That can include advising another C-level officer that a proposed plan or statement could have terrible media repercussions, politely telling another that "no comment" will only cause the company more problems, or turning down a journalist’s request for an interview with a high-level executive without alienating the journalist. Diplomacy is an essential skill in this position.
  • Respect as a professional. This job requires building a bond with the most important journalists and media outlets. A person who is not respected by them will not be able to get management the opportunities the company needs or do damage control on negative stories.
  • The ability to stay calm under stress. There is plenty of stress in a CCO’s job, from both internal and external sources. The CCO must be able to handle it coolly and calmly and perform his or her responsibilities in the most trying times.

A recent incident in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, provides a vivid example of what the head of communications
should not be. When Sara MacIntyre, the media handler of the premier of British Columbia tangled with reporters, she became the story, and in a very negative way. That’s a cardinal sin in the profession—making the story about yourself and not the leader.

MacIntyre told reporters at a trade show that her boss would not be taking questions that day—they would merely have a photo op—even though the premier was standing just a few feet away talking to an exhibitor. When the journalists pressed further for just a few questions for the premier, the communications director became clearly irritated and argumentative. Chewing gum all the while, she rudely interrupted them in midsentence and walked away as they pursued her constantly repeating, "She’s not taking questions today." The press aide never gave a reason why despite being asked repeatedly. Since the premier was heading back to the provincial capital of Victoria after the trade show, the reporters would have no further opportunity for an interview, sorely displeasing them and their editors.

Of course, this being the information age, a video camera was rolling, and soon the video of the testy PR person zipped across Canada and around the globe. Bad behavior videos quickly go viral these days. MacIntyre’s demeanor became the story, rather than the premier’s interest in the clean technology, which was the focus of the show she was touring. Canada’s Globe and Mail called MacIntyre "TV’s newest villain."

A sure-fire opportunity for positive media coverage was turned into a media disaster.

Principles of Good PR

The Arthur W. Page society, the premiere organization for heads of communications of large firms, provides some excellent guidelines for good public relations and for the people who engage in the profession. The principles of public relations management it stresses include:

  • Tell the truth. Let the public know what is happening and provide an accurate picture of the company’s character, ideals, and practices.
  • Listen to the customer. Understand what the public wants and needs.
  • Manage for tomorrow. Anticipate public reaction and eliminate practices that create difficulties.
  • Remain calm, patient, and good humored. As spokesperson, your demeanor will be seen as the overall attitude of the company. Losing your cool does a disservice to everyone (except tabloid journalists).
  • Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it. No corporate strategy should be implemented without considering its impact on the public.

Any CCO should be someone who believes in these principles and adheres to them.

Does a company need to have a person with the title of Chief Communications Officer? Perhaps not, if the person in the job has a direct line of communication with the CEO and is in the inner circle to provide advice when major decisions are being made.

However, in my view, the title resolves all doubt as to the critical importance of the function and the respect and authority the person in the position needs and deserves. I strongly recommend it.

Tips

  • Regard the public relations department as the eyes and ears of your company.
  • Establish a close and direct relationship with the head of your public relations unit.
  • Consider establishing the position of Chief Communications Officer.
  • Fill that position with an experienced person who is first and foremost a strategist.
  • Be sure that person is briefed in advance before every major decision and given a chance to weigh in on what the public relations consequences might be.

Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. "Virgil Scudder, Ken Scudder, World Class Communication: How great CEO’s Win with the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media, 2012"

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