We explored the issues CCAOs are facing, including today’s challenging business environment, in which communications and public affairs chiefs are at the leadership table and on the front lines of communicating with a variety of stakeholders.  Note: the following survey was conducted prepandemic.

Speaking truth to power

With CCAOs being the public face and voice of the organization, transparency and authenticity are top of mind in the current business climate. Therefore, it’s not surprising these chiefs said the skills or traits that make them successful are: courage of conviction (the ability to speak truth to power regardless of consequences) (22%); influence without authority (22%); and business acumen and decision quality (21%).

“Chief communications and public affairs officers are really at the center of the leadership table,” says Richard Marshall, Global Managing Director of Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs Practice of Expertise. “They are the connective tissue of the organization across all stakeholders, so they have to be able to have both ‘outside-in’ thinking and ‘inside-out’ messaging.”

A role at the top of the house

The power of public opinion, particularly today, is often underestimated across organizations. Indeed, nearly a quarter of respondents said social pressure and responsibility (23%) is a big challenge for communications chiefs, higher than geopolitical uncertainty (11%) and globalization (6%). To overcome such challenges, CCAOs are finding their roles must be as close as possible to the CEO. “These roles have evolved from being reactive players who simply translate business decisions to ones that are strategic business partners and trusted advisors to the C-suite.  They are asking the tough questions:  ‘Have we thought about impacts (and optics) across all stakeholders? And do these decisions align with/advance our mission or does it create collateral damage?’” Marshall says.

In-demand talent: data and storytelling

As the storylines of businesses continue to rapidly evolve, companies must keep a pulse on the needs and expectations of shareholders, consumers, employees, and the community. To do this, CCAOs said the skills they need for success today are quite different from those of the past: 33% of CCAOs said if they could hire more of one skill set, it would be data analytics, while 17% said they would hire more content and in-house storytelling specialists. “Crisis management will always be important; it’s certainly front and center now; but a new focus and skills coming out of the pandemic is going to center around defining a company’s ‘go forward’ story to all of its key audiences,” Marshall says. “The top role is really becoming a chief storyteller; the keepr of the master narrative and lead strategist in developing a proactive campaign to deliver the story across all stakeholders.”

CCAO Action Plan

Immediate:

  • Serve as a listening post that constantly monitors the sentiment across all stakeholders
  • Be strategic partners in developing real-time messaging to serve all the stakeholders
  • Remain agile, transparent and “in the moment” as the business evolves day to day
  • Keep employees informed; engage them by reemphasizing the purpose of the company and sharing results; enlist them in the cause to maintain productivity amid all the noise

Intermediate:

  • Speak “truth to power” about decisions or messaging that may be “tone deaf” to certain audiences; or needs to be revamped to be more relevant to today’s environment
  • Map out the company’s “go forward” master story; gain alignment and test its authenticity
  • Continue to communicate across all audiences; even in the prolonged gray zones; beware that voids in communications can be filled with misinformation

Long-term:

  • “Right size and Right Talent”:  determine your “go forward” team; identify skill gaps/needs; what to ‘insource’ and ‘outsource’
  • Broaden your talent bench:  Add talent with different backgrounds and experiences  
  • Measure, test/tweak and refine all communications tools across all audiences to ensure maximum reach, impact, and influence
  • Continue to communicate transparently and frequently to rally around the organization’s people, purpose, and progress along the new journey forward.
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