What Every Company Needs to Know to Keep a Good Rep

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Once thought of solely as the moody wordsmith who churned out press releases and jokes for the boss, the Chief Communications Officer today is an expansive, strategic role that is crucial to virtually every facet of an enterprise.

If you think this is just the bragging of a CCO, you’re wrong. Ask Volkswagen if it wishes it was better at crisis communications. Or Jeb Bush if he’d like to know how to make meaningful connections with people. Or GE a few years ago, when I was the CCO before I retired at the end of 2015, if it wanted a simpler, more persuasive way to explain its tax bill (oof!).

In our volatile and pugilistic world, with the democratization of brand via social media, uncertainty in politics and societies, and the transformation of journalism, smart leaders recognize that the CCO is a powerful partner in enhancing reputation, culture and commercial success.

As the Arthur W. Page Society explains in its New CCO report, the role is truly about creating opportunities and relationships, inside and outside the enterprise, that build trust and opportunity. Today’s CCOs must be able to operate in areas where they had previously only played a supporting role. Take “culture” (everything an enterprise does and how it does it). Because culture is essential to a strong reputation (see Volkswagen), CCOs now partner with HR to understand the passions and aspirations of their colleagues, and to express this collective purpose simply and persuasively.

A few years ago, a junior executive at Goldman Sachs (GSJ) announced his resignation in the op-ed page of The New York Times, claiming a “toxic” culture. By the time I got into my chair that morning, GE CEO Jeff Immelt had e-mailed me: “Could we handle something like this?” I immediately began planning how I would “push back” on such an op-ed.

But then I realized Jeff wasn’t asking me for tactics. He wanted to know if our culture was strong enough that this wouldn’t happen at GE in the first place. And, he wanted to know if culture was at the top of my “to do” list. You bet it was after that e-mail.

Reflecting on situations like this during my 13 years leading communications at GE (GE), I believe the best way to describe the new CCO is to share a few of the things I did (imperfectly) every day:

Scan, Analyze and Act: Every CCO must be the eyes and ears of the enterprise, analyzing information and developments and coming up with a plan to act…fast.

Play Offense and Defense: Many CCOs are excellent firefighters but increasingly boards and CEOs expect us to play offense, too — to influence and advocate from a position of strength rather than weakness.

Coach and Teach. Up, down and sideways: How do I answer the “How’d I do?” question after the CEO comes off stage without getting fired? How can I help my peers in the C-Suite and my team?

Recruit and Develop: At GE, we had 500 communicators globally and they all needed to be good. We focused on leadership; my experience is that senior communicators fail because they are poor leaders, not poor communicators.

Negotiate and Compromise: Everything requires some degree of diplomacy – language, timing, budgets, deadlines, strategies. Today’s CCO is as much a mediator as a communicator.

Listen and Question: Many times in meetings, I did not say much. But I listened to business leaders describe their complex products, plans or problems. Near the end of the meeting, I would ask “dumb” questions that hopefully would simplify our point further and eliminate stuffy corporate language.

Learn and Humanize: I visited GE’s employees all over the world to seek understanding about the company and to build trust with my colleagues. I needed to know how we made money, what data best illuminate our performance, and what big problems we were trying to solve. This helped our team to humanize the colossus that is GE.

Speak Up: The C-Suite needs to hear the unvarnished truth, and everyone else sees through corporate double talk. The CCO has to strenuously advocate for being as forthright and transparent as possible with all stakeholders. Honesty is the lifeblood of trust.

Engage and Network: The CCO must cultivate “influencers” in their industries through personal relationships, social media or partnerships. This includes journalists, NGOs, academics, analysts, creatives and consumers. In other words, just about everyone.

Integrate: CCOs must contribute beyond communications by connecting dots and integrating conflicting interests. To be able to do this, CCOs must have deep understanding of how business works.

In other words, the best CCOs today work across an enterprise to ensure that its mission, purpose and values are faithfully represented not just in communications but in actions. It’s a burgeoning role that has influence over so much of the enterprise and its relationships. It truly is an exciting time to be a CCO.

Gary Sheffer previously served as Vice President, Communications & Public Affairs for General Electric, and is the immediate past chairman of the Arthur W. Page Society.

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