The world is changing and so is the nature of the Chief Communication Officer (CCO)  role. Over the past few years, CCOs have helped their CEOs realise the need for a sound balance between happy customers, driven workforce and increased shareholder value.

But the work is not done. In our ever evolving world, the relationship between the CCO and CEO and the broader leadership team has become more crucial than ever. On Thursday, 23rd November, the EACD Forum will discuss the CEO-CCO relationship and how CCOs can help drive the focus even further on societal impact.

Michael Stewart, Global Vice Chairman of Edelman, is the EACD Forum’s keynote speaker. Michael is a member of Edelman’s global executive committee and is responsible for the firm’s advisory business, Edelman Intelligence and strategic partnerships. The event’s moderator, Inge Wallage, is Managing Director of the EACD: I asked both of them about the role of CCOs and the significance of executive positioning in our changing times.

How do communications leaders position their CEOs in a way that is both authentic and that brings benefit to the overall corporate reputation – and even the financial bottom line?

Michael Stewart: We’re currently operating in an environment where there is a complete crisis of confidence in leadership. From sexual harassment scandals to the Paradise Papers, the news cycle in 2017 has been a virtual referendum on leadership itself. At the heart of this crisis is an understandable breakdown in the public’s trust in institutions and the people who run them simply to do what is right. In our 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, we found a sharp decline in trust across all institutions as well as in those who lead them. Just 37 percent of the general population say CEOs are credible – a 12-point drop over the prior year.  In this context, we as communicators have our work cut out for us. Based on our research on trust, we’ve outlined topline principles for helping leaders gain credibility in an authentic way in order to deliver on business goals. (ed.: Michael will be sharing these principles at the EACD Forum on 23 November)

Inge Wallage: There needs to be alignment between the public persona and the private persona of the CEO and, therefore, in the way s/he presents him-/herself to the world. Alignment between CEO and the organisation cannot be different in terms of values/behaviour. The starting point is for communications leaders to listen, observe, question and, if needed, challenge the CEO regarding their views, opinions, behaviour and so on in light of this. Secondly, communications leaders should think whether they work for the CEO or for the organisation. The CEO leads the organisation and as such both CCO and CEO serve multiple stakeholders. In terms of overall positioning, in which CEO reputation plays an important role, all stakeholders need to be considered and prioritisation of stakeholders agreed. Benefits to the overall corporate reputation, including financial bottom line, will only be achieved in this way.

Where is the line between a celebrity CEO (and the attendant risk of overshare) and a CEO that stays in the background?

Inge Wallage: This depends on industry and sector (Hollywood is different to the mining industry) and culture (US is clearly different than some more 'humble' nations). Secondly, it strongly depends on the personality: you cannot make a celebrity CEO out of someone who is shy, nor can you make a strong ego into a shy one. So staying true to a CEO's personality is key. Last, but certainly not least, focusing too much on the CEO can be detrimental to an organisation. Playing the team game is much better and creates a less vulnerable situation. Multiple people create success.

Michael Stewart: Today, in the face of unprecedented complexity and an always-on social media world, CEOs can no longer be invisible. So, today’s leadership model is one of the Engaged CEO. This model understands that the traditional pyramid of authority has been upended, and CEOs and leaders are no longer at the top of the influence pyramid. Influence now sits with the people. To be credible, CEOs listen directly to their stakeholders, act on their insights and ultimately engage them as advocates.

How do CCOs evaluate the impact of executive positioning, specifically in terms of business or an organisation's overall results?

Michael Stewart: The real ROI of executive positioning goes far beyond impressions or hits. Essentially it goes to the core of building trust and a company’s license to operate, and as such correlates directly to tangible business outcomes ranging from the ability to raise capital to the ability to attract and retain talent.

Inge Wallage: The variety of tools at our hands, from media analysis to network analysis to (internal and external) surveys guide the CCO to evaluate the impact. However, one can never take executive positioning into isolation from other elements (great teams around the CEO, fabulous community management, great product, great campaigns, etc) that might have played a role in creating success. 

In Europe, where the political contract is being rewritten by extremists, interest groups, and populist parties, are business leaders taking on a more vocal role in social issues, stepping in where our political leaders are failing – and, if so, what role does the CCO have to play in this?

Inge Wallage: The role for the CCO is to check whether his or her organisation is the appropriate kind of organisation to take stance and, secondly, to analyse and discuss with the CEO whether s/he believes in taking a stance. If there is a disagreement and it is felt that the organisation should, but the CEO is reluctant, then it should be considered whether someone else in the executive team should be the voice. However, in social issues when a company wants to take stance, it is actually important that it is the CEO, for credibility’s sake.  If the CEO wants to, but their executive team or board is reluctant, then there is a big opportunity for the CCO to make the case.

Michael Stewart: Business leaders in Europe and around the world are taking a stand on many social issues of the day, from Unilever’s Paul Polman here in Europe and his commitment to sustainability to US where CEOs have resigned from the President’s Economic Council. In this context, the CCO has a critical role as strategic counsellor in determining what issues align with their companies’ missions, values, business objectives and track records, and therefore are the ones on which to take a stand


To find out more about CCOs, CEOs and strategic communications leadership, make sure to attend the EACD Forum in Madrid on Thursday 23 November: entry is free, but places are limited so registration is encouraged here.

Shweta Kulkarni Van Biesen has 12 years of experience helping companies and nonprofits reach their goal through communications. In her current role, she is responsible for reputation management, leadership communications, and employee engagement. Shweta previously managed brand newsrooms designed to reach a range of audiences at MedTech Europe, medical technology industry association in Brussels. She has been a Fellow at Johnson & Johnson, working in their corporate social responsibility team.