When my colleagues in journalism decided to switch careers and take on PR jobs, we used to refer to it as “going over to the Dark Side.” Which means, by implication, that the chief communications officer for a brand represented Darth Vader.
I should probably be more careful about making such jokes, given what I’ve since learned about the ways chief communications officers can actually make my work a lot easier. At their best, the CCO (or VP of corporate communications, which is still more common), help refine the key messages that speak to a company’s overall mission and purpose, which then infuses everything those who work for the company will say to the media.
A comms exec does more than generate coverage in newspapers and magazines, of course. I have witnessed first-hand as they assist the CEO with their PowerPoint presentations, link arms with the CMO in telling a corporate story that complements the one a marketing team tries to tell about its customer audience, and often drives conversations between HR and employees as well.
Unlike their counterparts in marketing, tech or other functions, though, comms professionals are being elevated to C-suite status while the digital imperatives of their jobs are still quite uncertain. While CIOs might be playing with a wide range of tools, and CMOs have more martech products than they know what to do with, much of corporate communications feels almost “white glove” and analog in the way relationships are built and developed.
For about two years I worked with one of the key vendors in this space, Cision, which has created one of the few comprehensive platforms for running media relations campaigns and analyzing the results. At the risk of being biased, I can say the need for technology here is becoming critical. I interviewed a number of chief communications officers, for example, who were clearly deeply committed to their work but often fighting to be taken seriously because it was so hard to prove what being mentioned in a major outlet was worth to the bottom line.
Then there’s the nuances of being a chief communications officer in a B2B firm, where the number of publications interested in your brand may be far more limited, and the challenge of explaining what you do outside your particular industry feels next to impossible. Comms leaders must also strike the right balance between looking “disruptive” enough to get attention while businesslike enough to be taken seriously by enterprise customers and prospects. Throw in the range of channels they need to consider — from social media influencers to things like VR in the future — and you begin to see what a unique combination of savvy and stamina a CCO needs to have.
Even as software applications catch up to their needs, the professional life of CCOs will probably continue to be the most personal kind of marketing a company does. Automate a pitch too much and it comes across as generic. Fail to coach your subject matter experts properly and they’re bound to say the wrong thing on the record. Now that we’re in Q4, many organizations will be figuring out what they want their storylines for 2020 to be. What better time than to use this month as our “CCO Issue” to capture how those storylines might play out?
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