Above (left to right): Michael Stewart, Julia Meighan, Ida Gutiérrez de Escofet and Inge Wallage

The evolution of the chief communication officer and the increasing demands for the communications executive served as the starting point for a wide-ranging discussion at the EACD Forum 2017 in Madrid last Thursday evening. From the strategic importance of the CEO-CCO relationship to the do’s and don’ts of executive positioning, a panel of experts guided by moderator Inge Wallage, Managing Director of the EACD, took a deep-dive into this evolving role, drawing out insightful questions from an appreciative audience.

In his opening speech, Edelman’s global vice chairman, Michael Stewart, described companies and the people who lead them as “fighting for survival” and recognising reputation as a definite tangible asset in the face of “techtonic shifts” in business and society - including disruptive tech software, decline in public trust and increased turnover of companies.

The first of two striking analogies of the evening was Michael’s description of the communications executive as “the spider in the web”, possessing a transversal oversight of the entire organisation, internally across the vertical responsibilities that blinker his or her fellow executive committee members, and externally across the broad array of diverse, conflicting stakeholder groups. If corporate reputation is not monolithic but rather a series of reputations - for customer service, employee engagement, media coverage, financial performance and so on - communications executives, with their involvement in all these aspects of the organisation, become the reputation executives. This unique position enables the communications executive to give unparalleled support to CEO decision-making.

Drivers of success

Alongside the ‘spider in the web’ model, three other drivers of success are: 1) Business acumen - communicators need to truly understand the business and speak the language of the CEO; 2) ROI - communicators must get better at proven tangibles and catch up with the “battery of metrics” at the disposal of their marketing colleagues and 3) navigating social expectations - the days of the silent CEO are over, with CEOs being the top spokespeople for their organisations.

Michael’s points were developed by his co-panellists. Ida Gutiérrez de Escofet, Senior Vice President Corporate Affairs, CSR and Communication at the evening’s host, NH Hotel Group, warmly seconded the role of trusted adviser, giving examples from her relationship with her CEO and stating that communications executives “need to make sure you are part of the strategy plan”, or as Inge Wallage put it, being in the know allows the CCO to anticipate and prepare.

Referring to of the new social expectations for business, Julia Meighan, Chief Executive at VMA Group and Executive Coach, also pointed out that society expects CEOs to want to contribute to building a better world. Making money is no longer enough: CEOs have to ‘show and tell’ that they want to build a better environment where their companies operate.

The ensuing discussion about executive positioning warned against focussing too much on the CEO at the expense of other executive board members - not only as a way of avoiding inter-board jealousies, but also to draw on the best that each individual member can offer. Following a comment by audience member Borja Velón Lepine of Lenovo Spain that it is “unbelievable” that CEOs aren’t all on social media, which is after all a a battleground for reputation, Ida cautioned againstforcing a reluctant CEO onto social media - executive positioning has to be authentic, perhaps on social media above all.

How to support the development of the CCO

After ‘the spider in the web’, the second Analogy of the Day was Julia’s description of an overwhelmed communications leader complaining that living up to the huge transfer of roles from tactical expert to business-savvy strategiser felt like being “drafted into the Special Forces”. This prompted comments from the audience, who highlighted the need for a supportive framework for the communications executive’s development.

Hans Koeleman of KPN pointed out that communications executives need to have the right team around them giving the right amount of support to help them carry out their new responsibilities. Dr. Edna Ayme-Yahil pointed out that there can be challenges from other members of the executive team who aren’t comfortable with the communications leader taking up a seat at the executive table. Jan Hol of VU University Medical Center, meanwhile, noted that one of the main vulnerabilities of c-suite executives is the expectation of 24/7 availability. Rather than risk burn-out, executives must learn to say no to some engagements and learn how to filter out non-critical tasks.

Finally, Carmen Queipo de Llano commented that, while communications executives are naturally curious about a broad range of topics, they must improve their own storytelling about the function – a challenge the EACD is eager to take on.

Under Inge Wallage’s guidance and input from an audience hungry to thrash out the changing realities of their day job, the discussion travelled over a wide terrain, including competition with the marketing function and the inter-organisational war for resources. We’ll be covering these topics in depth on www.eacd-online.eu - click here to reserve yourself a seat at the next EACD discussion about communications and the people who shape it.