The Torch Is Passed

At the end the year, Beth Comstock of GE and Jon Iwata of IBM will move on from their current posts. Both were chief communications officers who became senior members of management.

The iconic campaigns that were created on their watch, Ecomagination for GE and Smarter Planet for IBM, brought sustainability out of the CSR corner and made it part of mainstream business.

Comstock led a venture fund that aimed to partner GE with future ideas in energy and technology. Iwata led the effort to brand Watson, the artificial intelligence leapfrog that aims to confront cancer and other intractable issues.

As they advance into the next phase of their careers, it is evident that the next generation of corporate communications leaders is ready to step into their shoes. This would include Ray Day at IBM, Sue Garrard at Unilever, Jon Harris at Conagra, Deirdre Latour of GE, Andy Pharoah of Mars, Dave Samson at Chevron and Stacey Tank at The Home Depot.

It is up to the CCOs to thrust themselves into the conversations around the issues of the day, from populism to job loss from automation to the redefinition of appropriate behavior in the workplace to the implosion of mainstream media and rise in importance of employees as prime stakeholder. Communications budgets need to grow, not be eviscerated as part of the dreaded general and administrative cost line. The CCO must also make him or herself into a bit of a public figure, as an enthusiastic social media participant and leader in the community and be willing to take on additional responsibilities including sustainability in supply chain and corporate strategy.

This is a moment for business to be the last retaining wall against the tsunami of distrust. The CCO must move from adjutant to field general, from advisor to activist, from words to actions. The world needs change to be led by business in a way that enriches shareholders and improves society.

So adieu to Beth and Jon... my frequent companions at Arthur Page and Seminar meetings. We will push on, with the greatest respect for all that you have brought to our profession.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.