Andrea Hagelgans is Edelman’s Managing Director of U.S. Social Issues Engagement. In this role, she helps companies and CEOs navigate complex social and political issues impacting the workforce and stakeholders. She previously was head of Corporate Reputation for the NY region and Managing Director, NY Corporate and Public Affairs.
There is no question that in recent years the role of the Chief Communications Officer (CCO) has undergone a significant transformation, encompassing a broader set of responsibilities and heightened expectations. Edelman’s newly released The Future of Corporate Communications study for 2023 engaged 200+ CCOs and communications leaders from leading US and global brands to explore their predictions for the most important responsibilities over the next two years. Almost two thirds (60%) of respondents emphasized the importance of employee engagement, while 54% highlighted the significance of brand reputation. In contrast, media coverage, once the hallmark of success, accounted for less than half of the priorities. Additionally, these CCOs reported an elevated status, serving as senior advisors to the CEO and the Board of Directors with access at unprecedented rates. This transformation is due, in part, to the complex landscape that CEOs now face, including anti-ESG campaigns, geopolitical threats, and the need to connect with and motivate a younger workforce. Furthermore, CEOs are increasingly relying on CCOs to help them navigate these changes.
So, have communicators officially arrived? Yes and no. In my role leading societal issues management, I’m often called upon to counsel the C-Suite on the intersection between societal issues and business. Given the sensitive nature of these topics, conversations between peers can quickly become charged if not handled properly. These situations require the very attributes that make CCOs excel: the ability to bring people to the table, unpack multistakeholder perspectives, and understand the nuances required for effective internal and external communication.
However, despite the solid evidence supporting the CCO’s importance, many still contend with an internal organizational structure that hasn’t shifted with the times. Outdated assumptions about a CCO’s function often limit knowledge sharing, hindering the ability to anticipate challenges or get plugged in early. While CEOs recognize the power of CCOs’ talents in decision-making, colleagues in other functions may still view the role narrowly, focusing only on press releases and social media. In these situations, conversations can devolve into territorial battles and power struggles, frustratingly complicated by politicized issues.
Heading into a volatile 2024, there is no time to waste on internal battles. Recent events have shown that decisions made in isolation by any team – whether marketing, government affairs or human resources – can ripple through a company’s reputation and ultimately impact the bottom line.
So, how can CCOs build the internal intersectionality necessary for an effective strategy?
- Integrate issue sensing: Build in issues sensing to your daily work and proactively identify emerging challenges and opportunities, not just within the organization but also in the broader societal context. Cultivate a general interest in the concerns HR and Employee Resource Groups are grappling with and keep a pulse on the hurdles they are facing when it comes to employee engagement. For example, our recent Trust Barometer data regarding the workforce highlighted that 31% of young employees (ages 18-34) are regularly so distraught over what is happening in the news that they are unable to function at work. Establish regular meetings with legal, HR, government affairs and staff supporting the C-Suite to stay abreast of the societal issues landscape and how those topics may manifest in the workplace. Create a formal protocol for evaluating and prioritizing societal issues, allowing for a variety of perspectives to be heard in the decision-making process.
- Enhance CCO recognition and impact: CCOs often wear multiple hats. Nevertheless, their contributions might not always receive the recognition or comprehension they deserve from colleagues in different departments. Rectify this by reframing the role internally and recognize that action drives trust. Avoid assuming that everyone is aware of the full scale of your contributions beyond typical communications functions. Instead, build out the data to demonstrate ROI and showcase concrete results.
- Foster cross-functional collaboration: Although CCOs and other communications leaders often have direct access to the CEO and board, their effectiveness doesn’t hinge solely on vertical connections. Place an emphasis on horizontal relationships, as the capacity to collaborate horizontally across various departments is equally vital in today’s interconnected business landscape. The Future of Corporate Communications data demonstrates that CCOs have unprecedented access to the CEO and are a trusted guardian of the brand’s reputation and are leaning into cross-functional partnerships to manage some of the enterprise’s thorniest reputational challenges. Prioritize building trusted relationships across departments so that you have the ability to mitigate risk and identify opportunities for impact.
In a world marked by complex societal issues, the CCO's ability to connect people, perspectives, and strategies has never been more critical. To succeed in the dynamic landscape ahead, CCOs must continue to adapt, educate, and demonstrate their value as essential contributors to organizational success. The primacy of the CCO is undeniable, but their ability to thrive and lead hinges on their capacity to foster unity and navigate the evolved terrain of modern business.