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In what may be indicative of an elevated and growing importance of strategic communications within many large, global organizations, the majority of (58%) of chief communications officers (CCOs) now report directly to their CEOs, up from only 48% a year ago, according to an recent survey of top communications professionals.

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The study, “The Rising CCO,” was conducted by executive search firm Spencer Stuart and PR Firm Weber Shandwick with KRC Research. It also found that in addition to naming their organization’s CEO as their direct boss, 40% of CCOs consider the chief executive to be their biggest ally in the organization.

This leadership momentum coincides with an increase in CCO tenure. In 2008, CCOs’ average tenure was 65 months, compared with 54 months in 2007. Comparatively, the average tenure of chief marketing officers (CMOs) is 28 months, according to separate research by Spencer Stuart.

Crisis Management Experience Increases

Today’s volatile economy and business environment has elevated the need for crisis communications and issues management and is making them increasingly critical to a CCO’s success, the survey found. According to the CCOs surveyed, the need for crisis/issues management experience has increased 45% since 2007.

“The data reinforces the fact that when many organizations endure critical times, CEOs are increasingly looking to the CCO for their strategic crisis communications and ability to quickly react to a variety of scenarios,” said George Jamison, who leads Spencer Stuart’s Corporate Communications and Investor Relations practice.

Social Media Most Important Tool for 2009

According to study findings, CCOs cite social media/blogging as the most frequently added function to their corporate communications departments in 2008, and they believe that social media/blogging will be their most important tool in 2009.

Because the internet continues to provide unanticipated opportunities and risks, skills often ‘owned’ by the CCO are now in greater demand, according to Weber Shandwick. These include crisis and issues management, social media monitoring and online engagement, reputation management, and management of a complex portfolio of stakeholders such as employees, investors, nongovernmental organizations.

“Like never before, CEOs are depending on CCOs for crisis and issues counsel to steady their company reputations and calm stakeholders,” said the PR agency’s chief reputation strategist Leslie Gaines-Ross. “CEOs who do not communicate using traditional and social media do so at their own peril.”

Additional survey findings:

  • Social media played a greater role in 2008 in North American corporate communications departments than in European ones. Nearly two in 10 (18%) communications departments in North America relied upon social media/blogging in 2008 as communications tools/resources, compared with 7% in Europe. Further, nearly twice as many North American CCOs report they added a social media/blogging function to their department in 2008 as European CCOs (41% vs. 22%, respectively). However, European CCOs are just as likely as their North American peers to expect social media to grow as a critical tool in 2009 (26% and 30%, respectively).
  • CCOs report 11 board interactions in 2008 vs. seven in 2007, a 57% increase.
  • CCOs who work for companies with “most admired” reputations are more closely aligned with CEOs. Some 62% of respondents at Fortune’s Most Admired companies report to CEOs, compared with 39% at less esteemed Contender companies. Further, CCOs at Most Admired companies are much more likely to cite the CEO as an organizational ally than those at Contender companies (46% vs. 34%, respectively).
  • CCOs differ in tenure and reporting line depending on their region. North American CCOs have been in their current positions for approximately 2 years longer, on average, than European CCOs (5 years, 10 months vs. 3 years, 9 months, respectively). Despite their shorter tenures, European CCOs are more likely to report directly to the CEO than their North American counterparts (66% vs. 53%, respectively)

About the Survey: The second-annual Rising CCO survey examined the roles, responsibilities and opinions of CCOs in some of the the world’s largest companies. The 159 survey participants come from companies based in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific. Some 84% percent of respondents work in global Fortune 500 companies.

Notes:

  1. CCOs included individuals with titles such as chief communications officer, head of corporate communications, senior VP communications, head of corporate marketing, and global chief public affairs officer.
  2. Similar to the first survey conducted in 2007, responses are compared between CCOs in Fortune’s “world’s most admired companies” and those in “contender companies” (generally, most admired companies are the most highly ranked companies in an industry on overall reputation; contender companies are ranked in the industry’s bottom half).

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