The riskiness of citing risk in the C-suite is you can get fired for it. Or you can compromise yourself and your truth-telling principles by overlooking the boss’ moves to silence a complaint. Or you can isolate yourself when the chief makes a lame comment in public that wasn’t in the plan.

The chief risk officer at MF Global was replaced after repeatedly clashing with his CEO over the dangers of buying Euro sovereign debt and the risk of undermining investor trust and confidence.

If it’s true what we read about the Murdoch enterprise in England, hush money and cover-up were alternatives to standing for stakeholders’ right to know the truth. Nobody persuaded the person in charge to come clean with stakeholders and the boss had to resign a directorship.

CNNMoney’s collection of “lame responses from CEOs” –with quotes like “I need my life back” and “they (investors) shouldn’t care”—gets folks to focus on the slippery slope of leadership communication, when the leader’s gaffe in public raises the level of risk to stakeholder belief, and exposes the limits of professional spokesperson counseling.

Here’s the troubling—because it’s complicated—question: what is the chief communication officer’s accountability for consistently looking for potential risk to stakeholder belief and, when red flags are found, how, if the CCO has this accountability, should or can the CCO weigh in, and what are the odds of succeeding as an advocate of transparency and trust, and as the one person in the C-suite who is best qualified to advise on stakeholder perception and engagement?

Obviously, given my experience and all of our observations over a great many years and circumstances, there is no simple answer to this. I raise this, however, for at least two reasons:

One is that this is a blog that provides a chance, if not an obligation, to address complex issues that either challenge or enhance our drive toward more authentic and effective corporate leadership. We are here to elevate the value of corporate communication, and, although it can certainly be delicate business, turn over and deal with the rocks that trip and diminish value.

The second reason is more personal. Judith Muhlberg and I teach a class in graduate studies at Georgetown University on crisis communication. Some of our friends in the Page Society have been kind enough to come into our class and to help these young people understand how the CCO works to influence the resolution of corporate issues and the achievement of leadership goals.

This coming semester, as in previous semesters, we will assign individual students to watch the Web for interactive comments and conversations about assigned companies. They will be charged with finding “red flags” or exchanges on blogs, Twitter and other internet channels that could signal a pre-crisis condition. We say this is a condition that, if not addressed by the company in some manner, could escalate to a crisis situation, where the condition comes to dominate leadership—and especially communication leadership—attention. We take the position that CCOs can, and possibly should, look for what the medical profession would call prodromes, an early symptom indicating the onset of a disease.

So, what’s in it for us—Judith and me—if you can respond to this Page Turner post as guidance, or at least insights that will help us guide these students toward the substantial roles of stakeholder engagement and C-suite collaboration in addressing issues that tie directly to an admonition that we constantly teach, drawing on Arthur W. Page, which is to look for the truth, tell the truth and prove it—and understanding that sometimes the hardest place to address the truth is inside the family.

Are CCOs knocking on the silos of corporate accountability, offering communication counsel? And, the essential question, if this is happening with the man or woman at the top, how, what can you share about the barriers and the routes to reality? Lessons learned—probably with previous employers in previous situations—would be very useful to hand along to the coming generation. I assume, certainly, that this is addressed in the future leaders program.

E. Bruce Harrison
Adjunct Professor, Leadership Communication,
Georgetown University