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As the top table tussle continues, meet the new kid on the block set to challenge the CMO

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Porter Novelli on the rise of the chief communications officer and how a focus on communication can improve customer journeys

The role of the chief marketing officer has long been documented. Its back and forth into the boardroom has been about as public as Facebook’s outage last month. Last year, three UK brands reinterpreted the traditional chief marketing officer role and merged marketing with its customer team. Johnson & Johnson abolished the title of chief marketing officer, while McDonald’s and Coca-Cola reinstated their chief marketing officer positions, reversing earlier moves to replace them.

So why has there been so much movement? There are many reasons for the chief marketing officer role being displaced – one being the change in the chief technology officer’s role and a sudden surge in programmatic around the customer journey. Overnight, digital heads had a better handle on data and, therefore, a competitive advantage in understanding customers, how they behave and how to commercialize those behaviors. The chief marketing officer became wrong-footed by the power of digital and data.

But this time around, the expertise comes from a role often found on the bench that has made its way on to the first team during the pandemic to attain ‘superpower’ status. Meet the chief communications officer – a C-suite hidden gem that’s been working tirelessly behind the scenes to connect the internal and external dots to make an organization prosper (and often make sense to its stakeholders). But it seems now is the time to take center stage as according to new research out by Porter Novelli, 97% of business executives believe that the chief communications officer is more important to their organization than ever before.

For many organizations, the chief communications officer was potentially guised within a head of corporate communications or head of PR role, yet their prominence was propelled forward overnight to C-suite status due to the pandemic. Marketing went quiet. Coca-Cola said it was focusing on other things and other brands dimmed their marketing lights. What they all suddenly reversed into was powerful and strategic communications.

Suddenly there was a new-found power in communications. There was a flurry of messaging to employees on public forums. Organizations needed messaging and quick-fire internal communications around how businesses were quickly adapting. There wasn’t time for on-pack promotions and the hiring of influencers. Suddenly, many chief executives around the world were leaving their lawyer waiting in the lobby on Teams and would not go on a Zoom call without the trusted communications lead. Businesses’ needs changed quickly. However, as the chief communications officer moved into the starting line-up, the challenge many organizations face now is one of legacy and silos. Hopefully with communications moving to the helm, this now means the merging of corporate, internal, consumer marketing and investor relations out of their corporate silos, which will mean operational change and more integrated brand behavior.

‘Do more with less’ is often what chief marketers are told – this was especially the case at the start of 2021. ‘Do something with nothing’ is generally what chief communications officers must do. As a result, their ability to be resourceful is at the heart of everything they do. Yet you don’t need much to unravel the complexity in today’s world. Expectations are at an all-time high, and chief execs find it increasingly hard to know what to prioritize and where to turn first. There’s also the pressure on societal issues, which mean it’s not good enough to have an ambition to just make money – it’s about making money responsibly or you will fail.

Recent research revealed that 95% of business executives say it is more important to them now than in the past to understand the needs and concerns of all their stakeholders, and 95% of executives say the social, cultural and economic challenges of the last 18 months have made them more aware of how their role can impact society.

And with this kind of societal complexity gathering focus, this isn’t to say that there’s not room for both in the boardroom – it’s just that communications across the right channel can fix many customer journeys, and the lifespan of a chief communications officer far exceeds the average 34-month shelf life of a chief marketer.

Sarah Shilling, executive vice-president at Porter Novelli.

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