Arthur W. Page Society

CCOs shine during an otherwise dark period in human history

By Tina McCorkindale, president & CEO of the Institute for Public Relations and Steve Cody, founder and CEO of Peppercomm

Over the years we’ve seen individual CCOs as well as the entire C-Suite function rise to the occasion in times of crisis and distress. The heroic efforts of our peers whose organizations were adversely impacted in the aftermath of 9/11 comes to mind as does the Great Recession of 2008.

But it’s fair to say that, based upon the findings of our two consecutive co-branded surveys of 300 and 403 senior communications executives, the CCO has never played a more vital role in the life (and, indeed, survival) of the greater organization than during these dark, distressing days of a global pandemic.

Here are just a few proof points from our most recent survey (which was fielded from April 6 to 12 and has a statistical margin of error of +/- 5 percent). As you’ll see, with one or two notable exceptions, the CCO/senior communications function has risen to all new heights of recognition, participation, and relevance.

We’re totally immersed

At least eight out of 10 respondents to two of our surveys of senior communication executives have said the communication function has been “very important” and “very involved” in the company’s external and internal COVID-19 response. 

This has been a seminal moment for CCOs who have been critical to the organization’s communication strategy to employees, showcasing the important role of the CCO as chief integrator. Only 10 percent of respondents in our first survey said the communication function was not part of the cross-functional response team, with human resources and operations serving as the most-often mentioned functions along with communication. As expected, employees were the most important audience, with 81% of leaders in the first survey saying communication to their internal audience was “essential or high” priority.

That said, as is the case in every unfolding crisis, there are areas for improvement.

Based on our survey results, there are opportunities for CCOs to help their employees in three areas: diversity, equity, and inclusion; measurement; and return-to-work (or return-to-the-office).

A major disappointment

We were dismayed to see that a mere 19% of respondents said they were sending Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) information to their employees. In a time where COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted people of color and frontline workers, CCOs must ensure they are taking care of the “most vulnerable” employees as communication strategies are not a one-size-fits-all. Therefore, DE&I efforts must be embedded in the organization and not be a fair-weather add-on.

Reporting & Measurement in the New Normal

While nearly three-fourths of senior communicators were, in fact, keeping a very close finger on the pulse of their employees’ feelings and sentiments, 27% of the respondents said they were not measuring, conducting research, or engaging in listening activities with their employees. Specifically, 28% were not conducting employee surveys

Needless to say, measurement is critical as it allows for benchmarking and offers opportunities to identify successes and areas of improvement. Internal surveys, coupled with action, also demonstrate the organization is listening to and responding to the workforce. 

It’s quite possible that, after furloughing 80% of one’s workforce and imposing 30% salary cuts on senior executives, CCO’s already knew how badly their surviving employees are feeling. Or, some CCO’s may have been fearful to report to the C-Suite that the employee base felt they were not being cared for, educated or listened to. 

Look Up and Look Around

The next “area of opportunity” for CCOs and agency executives in which to shine and play lead roles focused on the return-to-work component. Shockingly, 60% of respondents said they had not started planning for return-to-work or were unfamiliar with the organization’s plans. Two components to this are physical/health and psychological. 

Decisions need to be made about the physical workspace, transportation challenges to/from work, phased returns, rotating teams, and differences among state or country-based policies. Additionally, and most importantly, employees must feel safe.

Stacey Jones, who leads the global communications team for Accenture, said to get the return-to-work plan right, the CCO must be on the core crisis team because many companies are already having these conversations.

“Communications has been core to the return-to-work piece from day one,” she said. “As soon as we started pulling people out of the offices, we had to think about bringing them back to the office. Because we are global, we are dealing with various entities, including governments and health authorities, and we also have to be attuned to what our clients need. A point we have emphasized from the beginning and that has anchored everything we do is the safety of our people is our top priority.” 

Communicating changes and assurances effectively to different work teams can be challenging. Some companies are seeing backlash from frontline and factory workers who do not think their employers are doing enough to protect them. Above all else, employees must feel safe to return to work and know their company is looking out for their best interests. While it is clear there are multiple opportunities for the CCO to help organizations survive during this pandemic, internal communication is without a doubt more valued than ever and will continue to be in the future.

We believe that, overall, our profession has risen to the myriad challenges of an unprecedented once-in-a-century global crisis. In most cases, the CCO and senior communicators have excelled. But there is room for improvement, particularly in the areas of DE&I, reporting and engagement and, of course, preparing the employee population for a return to work.

Let’ hope the corner office decision-makers remember the vital role being played by Page members (particularly when it comes to employee engagement and internal communications when the next round of budgeting takes place). We’ve always deserved a seat at the table. Now, we have proof positive we belong there on a permanent basis.

To read the full report, please visit  The Institute for Public Relations and Peppercomm will collaborate on a third report in mid-May that will ask communications leaders to take a look ahead.

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