ITL #442 Reputational risk: why the Comms Officer is becoming the most important person in the room

3 weeks, 1 day ago

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In an increasingly rapid and explosive media environment, the modern communications officer needs to double-down on one aspect of the job: being the naysayer. By Leif Geiger.



Who is, and who is not, the biggest heavyweight in the C-suite is probably a yawn inducing conversation starter at any dinner party. Yet, should the topic ever come up, the Chief Communications Officer would typically not be a main contender. However, for some time now, communications officers are punching way above their weight.

Why? Simply because reputational hazards have multiplied, striking at the very heart of companies’ brand equity and potentially eradicating billions in market cap overnight.

While marketing officers have long been regarded as the secret sauce makers – busy working to build and increase brand equity – communications officers have been quietly working behind the scenes. The reality is that marketing and communications both help influence a company’s brand. Their audiences may differ, depending on the industry and the market, and their core tools and channels are likely different as well.

This said, alignment of the two is critical for coherent and effective messages to resonate with key audiences. So, the question becomes, who should have the last say?

Historically, the marketing function of an organization runs the show in terms of managing a considerably larger budget than its communications counterpart does. In this instance, the traditional unbalance in influence between the two functions is based on internal financial factors, when the response for how to strike the best balance should be determined by external financial risks – like potential reputational harm, which can cause equally negative financial impact.

The rising need to anticipate and manage risk

To better understand and manage potential external risks, marketing officers have typically leaned on their legal colleagues to get the greenlight on campaigns and other collateral. But what is legally approved and what is “acceptable” in the public eye are two different matters altogether.

We are living in a world that is getting increasingly more complex. It is fast moving, highly flammable and at times, even potentially explosive. This past year alone highlighted how important it is for brands to be both conscious of and action-oriented when dealing with social issues, while working to differentiate and keep up with shifting stakeholder demands.

Today, companies need to consider – and quite frankly are expected to take a public stance on – a variety of issues: cancel culture, environmental, social & governance (ESG), diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I), cyber threats, geopolitical tensions and much more. In these instances, legal advice is not necessarily the only guidance needed.  

This is when the communications officer can become the only person in the room raising a hand to say, “Seriously, is this really a good idea?”

Even in the C-suite where many are in favor of whatever the CEO suggests, there needs to be at least one person in every room who can and will say, “Wait a minute, we should NOT do this.” The communications officer needs to be equipped to speak up – even though it is not easy to do.

It is challenging to be the naysayer when everyone else is a yeasayer. And it is hard to prove the actual harm you were successful in avoiding, since it never happened.

Acknowledging the special role of the comms officer

A recent survey found that 71% of U.S. adults aged 18 to 55 care more about product sustainability than they did merely a year ago. And in 2020, when racial justice took center stage across the U.S., with people across the country speaking up and demanding change, DE&I became top of mind for brands. Some needed to re-evaluate their own policies, while others took a public stance.  To do this type of work meaningfully and authentically, brands can benefit from marketers and communications professionals working together – toward the same goals.

While much opportunity lies in working as a team, to be successful Marketing and Communications must collaborate with mutual respect. Ultimately, though, one needs to assume the role of the devil’s advocate. Mediating between both internal and external stakeholders and audiences, the communications officer is typically the person best placed for the job.

By his or her side are also investor relations officers, public affairs officers, risk officers – who collectively contribute to better understand stakeholder interests. Yet when all is said and done, the one person typically expected to consider the entirety is the communications officer.

In my 20+ years of experience as a communications professional and consultant, I have encountered both company scenarios – one, where the CMO leads and two, where the CCO is in charge. While these situations can vary based on differences in industry, customer base or are set in place for historical reasons, I have witnessed first-hand the benefits and drawbacks of both approaches.

Many times, I have found CCO-led businesses are more thoughtful, but perhaps also more evasive. While firms led by the CMO typically are more action led, yet maybe not always mindful of the intricacies of the world. At certain points in time, and in certain circumstances, leaning either way can be the right choice.

At the end of the day, corporate reputation means a great deal – perhaps more so today than ever before. It can make or break a company, making the role of the communications officer critically essential to business success. Recognizing this, sooner rather than later, is one of the most important cues for companies across the world moving forward.


 


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The Author

Leif Geiger

Leif Geiger is a seasoned communications consultant and advisor to executives within B2B and B2C, and the Deputy CEO of Prime Weber Shandwick.   Mail the author Visit the author’s website

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