The Role and Responsibilities of a Chief Communications Officer

… and How It’s Rapidly Changing Thanks to Tech…

My last two roles had the title of Chief Communications Officer, which is often used interchangeably with Public Relations Officer which I think is much more “cool” when you consider the acronyms, CCO and PRO, with the latter being clearly the hipper one.

I mean, who doesn’t want to say: “Yup, I’m the PRO at such and such company.

… Just kidding… that would be super-lame.

At The Iron Yard (my last company), a hyper-growth startup that’s very much scaled out of that phase into a substantial business, it was the final role among many that I held in order to create some consistency of message, brand, and overall communication to the outside world.

Much of this centered around the digital side of our communication strategy with social media and networking being a significant strategic and tactical part. I worked with my Partner and CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) to align messaging and divvy up the needs of the growing organization from the high-level to the day-to-day implementation. It was an exciting role that allowed me to significantly grow some skills that I had not every fully invested in.

changelog

With Assembly I have the same title but the context is pretty different. We’re a much smaller organization and we don’t have 15+ campuses worldwide to manage. Assembly is also a product company with its core offering squarely centered around software whereas The Iron Yard was a services organization.

Consequently, my role is also different as I’m wearing a number of different hats that would fall under Product Development and Communications, Marketing and Public Relations, and strategy all over the place. This isn’t a surprise as we’re all playing a number of different roles both strategically and tactically. I do enjoy the ebb and flow and the concentric circles that must be navigated daily.

But I thought it a worthwhile exercise to lay out explicitly some of the top-level objectives that I have currently and describe the role because many organizations, especially young startups, do not have this type of person and/or role filled.

It’s not that all of them need someone in a full-time capacity in that role but rather they need someone spearheading these types of things in the organization.

In many contexts I would imagine the CEO or one of the Co-Founders doing this task or perhaps one of the more savvy and passionate staffers who may also be a closet marketer in some respect. It could even be a developer, engineer, or designer who just has a knack for it.

And to be honest, that’s somewhat of my own story as I’ve spent most of my life professionally as a software engineer (and I still do) but I’ve managed to pick up a ton over the years building products and the resulting businesses to find an interest in telling the story of those products and organizations.

Much of this has to do with my love for storytelling and the reality that any great product that you build has a story and that your success is entirely dependent on your ability to share that story with others, a lesson I’ve learned significantly throughout the years and most poignantly (and recently) with my indie app, Desk.

Desk: Tell me a story.

Desk: Tell me a story.

Essentially I wouldn’t have been able to achieve much success (and sales) at all if I hadn’t followed Marc Andreessen’s 50/50 Rule, which is essentially the understanding that one should spend 50% of your time building product and the other 50% of your time gaining/building traction (i.e. marketing and message expansion).

It’s a tough blend and balance, there’s no two ways about it and for many developers and engineers the thought of spending half of their time marketing is upsetting, to say the least. But, it is what it is.

So, what exactly do you do here...?

So, what exactly do you do here…?

General Overview and Downloadable Resources

A Chief Communication Officer or Public Relations Officer can have a variety of roles and responsibilities based on the need of the organization and obviously the size. In larger organizations where there are more needs and greater differentiation between Brand, Communication, Public Relations, and Marketing, you will have a number of Senior Execs fulfilling those tasks.

In contrast, in a startup, you may have a CCO or a PRO or a CMO or even a non-senior leader executing against these things. It all depends.

But, in general, a CCO/PRO would do the following at the very top level:

Responsible for all public relations within an organization, building, sustaining, and managing the organization’s reputation as seen and understood by the public.

Some of the primary responsibilities might include:

  1. Managing, writing, communicating press releases to the public.
  2. Overseeing communication strategy via social media and social networking.
  3. Managing the overall organizational and company brand and reputation, being a brand evangelist and advocate for the company and the customer.
  4. Connect, network, and pitch local/global/social media to manage interviews, major news pieces in all mediums (e.g. TV, radio, blogging, social, online video), and even events and speeches (internal and external).
  5. Be a liaison to the CEO and partner with other senior leaders for all messaging, copy, and content in their respective channels and orgs.
  6. Create, deliver, and drive corp strategy and message development for large-scale marketing initiatives, campaigns, announcements, and releases through all company outlets.
  7. Oversee internal communication, culture development, brand communication strategy, and opportunities to share this publicly.
  8. Content development throughout all channels, mediums, and technology for products, services, and any internal/external documentation.
  9. Liaise with teams and organization for crisis management.
  10. Communicate to the Board of Advisors, investors, and public stakeholders.

And… do whatever else the team needs in order to communicate effectively to any and all parties. I mean, essentially, at the very core, the CCO/PRO needs to know the company better than pretty much anyone else excluding, perhaps, the founder(s) and CEO.

Here’s a bit from Korn Ferry Institute and a survey they did regarding CCO’s (executive overview):

The communications function and all of its related disciplines—public affairs, corporate communications, investor relations, and corporate marketing—are taking on greater strategic importance in this new landscape. Historically, these roles tended to operate within predictable organization silos, but that is shifting as technology and the rapid adoption of new media have disintermediated the channels through which stakeholders gather information and engage and interact with companies.

Against this backdrop, the role of the Chief Communications Officer is evolving rapidly. Increasingly CEOs and boards expect their CCOs to be more than functional experts. Rather they need CCOs who are multidimensional strategists and advisors, collaborative leaders who can develop, integrate, and align, as well as execute both offensive and defensive strategies. At the same time, CCOs are being called upon to be organization problem solvers, integrators, and the “go to” person to help drive important enterprise-wide initiatives that don’t otherwise have clear organizational accountability.

You can download the full PDF here. Now, this report is a bit old (via 2011) but it’s still pretty relevant. Their “new areas of responsibility” is fascinating with an increased focus on “social media” and “corporate reputation” as well as “providing leadership on reputation, values, and culture across the enterprise” – that’s kind of neat.

Some expectations from the C-Suite include:

The need to more aggressively and proactively manage our story in the marketplace where we have less control.

and…

Continuing to demonstrate ROI in the new media environment.

and (I like this one a lot)…

Strength of bench talent: Developing the next generation of strong communicators who can operate well in a fast-paced environment and demonstrate strategic intuitiveness along with the technical competencies needed to manage communication for multiple stakeholders across multiple platforms.

I like the increased interest investing in others and helping build them up as part of the role, which is why Assembly was a good choice for my next adventure.

If you want a few more links you can try this one here, and here, and even Wikipedia which isn’t a terrible overview (although it is limited and short). Here’s an example job description that I liked as well for a public university. Some of the verbiage around priorities and other elements (e.g. enthusiasm and passion for modern modes of communication and tech) were very applicable.

Finally, a focus on Corporate Character, Authentic Advocacy, and Belief was done by Arthur W. Page Society. You an see their “Building Belief” structure here:

building-belief

You can download their Executive Summary and their Full Report as well. They really do break it down into actionable steps (and the cycle) which is fluidly accessible for any CCO/PRO and even CMO. Good stuff, worth a bookmark, download, and review.

You're going to need a toolkit.

You’re going to need a toolkit.

A Few Final Thoughts

The role of a CCO/PRO and even Chief Marketing Officer is one of constant evolution and this is because the ways through and by which we communicate messaging for ourselves and for the organizations that we represent are also changing rapidly.

Most of these strongly stem from the influence and changing climate of software and technology and the speed of innovation that is driving any communications officer (or employee, staffer) to feel the weight and pressure of staying abreast of all of these updates and changes.

The reality is that it’s nearly impossible to stay completely up to date with all of the communications channels and technologies that exist today and that will exist tomorrow. The mobile landscape, in particular, hasn’t been strongly present until just a few years ago and we’re all struggling to understand how dramatic that medium is and the impact it has on the business and bottom-line.

I think that software developers and web technologists are the most strongly suited people to be put into these communication and leaders roles moving forward simply because technology is part of the back-bone of any communication strategy, both internally and externally.

Even a hardcore software, engineering, and product development background could be of great use and service to communications strategy. And, if you don’t have one of those types of people for the senior role it behooves you work closely with the technology teams or hire and staff up in that area.

Regardless, a focus on technology is an uncompromisable part of the job role and responsibilities. You just can’t escape it.

I’ve managed to successfully transition my own career into both production (product development, software and engineering) and communication and it’s a beautiful blend and mix; it’s something I’m enjoying greatly and I hope to continue to develop my own craft and skill set as I grow and mature as a technologist and leader.