Posted by Phil Hall
Thou Shalt Learn the Truth About the C-Suite
For those unfamiliar with the expression, “C-Suite” is business slang for the exclusive gathering of chief officers within a corporation or organization. Some of these individuals literally have the word “chief” in their titles: Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Information Officer.
Some entities (not many) also have a Chief Marketing Officer, under whose control the PR functions would operate. In the scheme of things, it is a relatively recent development: as far as anyone can determine, the very first person to be granted this title was Sergio Zyman, who was Chief Marketing Officer at the Coca-Cola Company from 1993 to 1998.
But within the C-Suite, the Chief Marketing Officer (or CMO for the acronym obsessed) is usually the weakest link in the executive chain. In November 2005, the CMO Council, a trade association, issued a report that exposed the problems in this C-Suite niche. The survey of 400 executives found only 10% believed their marketing groups were “highly influential and strategic” within the company. Furthermore, less than half expressed confidence that their efforts were “well regarded and respected.”
“This study confirms marketers need to move from a tactical orientation to a more analytic and strategic approach that will enable them to realign marketing initiatives with the overall corporate mission,” said Donovan Neale-May, executive director of the CMO Council, in a news release that accompanied the report.
Even more troubling is the CMOs rarely stay long in the C-Suite. A July 2004 survey from research firm Spencer Stuart found that the average tenure for chief marketing officers at the top 100 branded companies is just 23 months. In comparison, chief executive officers stay in the C-Suite, on average, 54 months.
The Spencer Stuart survey discovered that “14% of CMOs for the world’s top brands have been with their companies for more than three years — and nearly half are new to the job over the last 12 months.”
Now, the realm of CMO goes far beyond PR – it can encompass all aspects of marketing (including advertising, sales management, product development, market research, customer service and internal communications).
But that raises a question: where do PR professionals sit at the C-Suite table? The answer: they don’t. Or at least they’re not there yet.
“We hear how PR should be at the table, but I would contend most PR people are not qualified to be at the table,” says Terry Hemeyer, senior counsel at Pierpont Communications in Houston and a senior lecturer on the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin. “First, they don’t understand the business well enough. Second, they are too tactical – they are too worried about using the AP style in press releases and not about the company, its goals and its objectives.”
And herein lies the problem. PR is proactive in its promotional aspects, but too often it is reactive when it comes to the bigger picture. Namely, when it comes to the bottom line issues affecting a company or organization’s financial health, PR professionals are often clueless.
“The folks on mahogany row already nod reverently in the direction of lawyers and CPAs and other specialists,” explains Richard Barger, president of Barger Consulting. “PR pros need to figure out what keeps the boss up at night and provide objective-based, business-oriented solutions. No CEO gives a rip about whether you use a fifth color on that brochure, but they sure care about reducing turnover, increasing sales, cutting costs, improving profits, and many other business metrics.”
Barger’s advice for addressing this situation: “Become a businessperson who understands biz-com, not a communicator who is trying to communicate ‘about’ business.”
J. Brooks Christol, corporate communications specialist at Healthways in Nashville, echoes Barger’s sentiments. “It is easy to blame the woes of our industry on the C-Suite, but the truth is that we are just as much to blame as anyone,” he says. “So many people come into the industry thinking it is easy to garner press attention, that their role is to get a client in front of a reporter, do a follow-up to make sure the story runs, and then move on to the next appearance. The problem is that we don't pay attention to the details and nuances that are constantly evolving, the details that can skew the tone of the messages we're sending out.”
I embrace the opinions reflected here. PR people don’t belong in the C-Suite if all they are bringing to the table is a standard-issue PR bag of tricks. Why do so few PR people have friends in the C-Suite? Because too many PR people are, genuinely, their own worst enemies.
(Phil Hall is the former president of Open City Communications, a New York PR agency, and former editor of PR News. His latest book "The New PR" will be released later this year from Larstan Publishing.)
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Spot on. Most PR people seem to have blinders on that show them that PR is the most important part of a business.
Takes me back to a team prep meeting at a previous agency. The account director announces to our VP and team that he's found something fishy in our client's annual report. He says they might be cooking the numbers because the balance sheet says that total assets are equal to liabilities + owner's equity amounts.
We need some more MBAs in the PR biz.
By the way, NBC's Beth Comstock seems to be one of the only PR/comm people who made it to the largest corner office, but broadcasting seems to offer a different career path. http://topazpartners.blogspot.com/2006/06/beth-comstock-is-my-pr-hero.html