Comms could be squeezed out its own profession as corporate affairs soars

Featured in PR Week, 23 June 2023, by David Broome

In 2020, McDonald’s added a boardroom seat for a new executive function.

‘Global impact’ brings together a symphony of corporate affairs talents – internal and external communications, government relations, public policy, sustainability, philanthropy, ESG and strategic planning – into one, vast über-department.

Led by a chief global impact officer tasked with adjusting these levers to shape McDonald’s reputation and report on progress directly to chief executive Chris Kempczinski, this is corporate affairs leadership on steroids.

The thing is: in multinationals, it’s suddenly become the norm, with many instances of the ballooning scope of corporate affairs leadership roles. Industry stalwart Phil Thomson, for example, now choreographs a vast troupe of communications teams (and sibling and cousin departments) as president, global affairs, for GSK. We’re witnessing not just growth in corporate affairs, but a tectonic shift.

Two opposing forces, on a collision course for years, have finally made contact. As technology and professionalisation were moving communications closer to the C-suite over the past decade, a reputational barrage was simultaneously bringing the boardroom to the profession’s door – consumer activism; bearpit social media; sustainability demands; investor mania for ESG; byzantine government regulations; the post-pandemic focus on corporate welfare; and much else besides.

The result? En masse, multinationals have suddenly decided to expand corporate affairs’ scope so that reputation can be managed holistically and from a single point of orchestration through a new executive role – in effect, “chief reputation officer”. (Indeed, at Ocado, that’s precisely the new job title of former comms director David Shriver.)

For the industry’s brightest talent, these are thrilling times. You can tear up your old career plan because the ceiling on our profession is, without exaggeration, being removed.

But this is no mere coronation for the profession, and nor is it cosmetic – a flashy new job title with bigger toys. Leaders like these are expected to be something entirely new: swiss-army-knife executive operators, as adept at understanding ESG demand in the financial markets as designing policy on sustainable sourcing. And increasingly in executive search, we’re noticing the fallout of that expectation: when an existing communications leader can’t deliver this sort of multi-dimensional decision-making, companies are parachuting in executives from other disciplines instead. The job has suddenly become too important; the stakes too high.

So, while we should celebrate this moment for corporate affairs – a true coming of age –we should also be on high alert, for our senior practitioners are potentially on the verge of being squeezed out of their own profession. Those old industry axioms – about having provable financial and strategic acumen – are no longer development goals. They are now baseline requirements for a continuing career in corporate affairs.

Download the article in full