Why should communication professionals get the top job?

Helen Graney asks, if today’s CEO is about inspiring a workforce, telling a great story and having superior communications skills able to be deployed across any media in any situation, why aren’t there more communication professionals in the role of CEO?

I recently sat on a panel at the PRIA National Conference to discuss why communication and PR is not a career path to the C-suite. It’s a really fascinating question and one that many communication professionals must have pondered just like me.

Indisputably, the role of the CEO has changed over the last decade.

The rise of activism – employee, shareholder and consumer has resulted in an increased focus on how companies behave: their ethics, their role in the community, what they stand for and (of equal importance) what they stand against.

From climate change to human rights people want to know where a company stands before they invest, sign up or buy.

And the figurehead and spokesperson of those beliefs is the CEO.

Quite simply, when the CEO speaks, the company speaks.

So, the CEO ‘of old’ who remained out of the spotlight and on the fence is no longer fit for purpose because today’s definition of a CEO has changed.

Silence is no longer the safe bet. Stakeholders expect empathy and transparent communication. And they expect it to be spontaneous and authentic.

CEO sociability is at an all-time high with 80% of CEOs now engaging in social media as compared to 36% in 2010. So, a CEO’s ability to not only communicate but also communicate in real time, is paramount.

And the requirement for that skill is amplified even more when there is a reputational risk.

With reputation contributing to over 25% of a company’s market value, reputation risk tops the rank as the most strategic risk that a company may face in the digital age.

In today’s business world, it’s not just that the CEO’s reputation is inextricably linked to the company status, they must also take an active lead in managing the company’s reputation.

When crisis strikes, 60% of the responsibility for the crisis is attributed to the CEO. How the CEO communicates in the wake of a crisis is inextricably linked to how the organisation will recover.

So, it begs the question…if today’s CEO is as much about aptitude than function, is about inspiring a workforce, telling a great story and having superior communications skills able to be deployed across any media in any situations, why aren’t there more communication professionals in the role of CEO?

It’s probably quite simple: they are lacking the demonstrated commercial, legal and governance experience that builds shareholder trust and mitigates risk.

The fix therefore is also quite simple: build competency and visibility beyond communications.

For competency, communication professionals need to invest in developing the skill set that the market expects of a CEO.

Those skill sets can be enhanced both via formal training and by immersing oneself in other aspects of the business. Spend time in different departments. It’s critical that communication professionals gain an understanding of the intricacies of the wider organisation.

Consider the Australian Institute of Company Directors course and join a board. There are far more communication functions on boards now than ever before. Sit on the Governance sub-committee. Learn the ropes in a tangible and demonstrable way.

And do what we do every day for clients…build your personal brand and re-frame your reputation both within the organisation and outside.

Make your wider skill set and aptitude for leadership visible.

If communication professionals can credibly be seen by stakeholders as a ‘safe pair of hands’ able to lead an organisation in an unstable and ever-changing landscape then I believe that our ability to galvanize, inspire and communicate with empathy will make us prime candidates for role of today’s top job.

Helen Graney – CEO of Jack Morton Australia and Weber Shandwick Australia


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