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It’s only getting tougher

The challenge of running the communications function has gotten exponentially tougher. The role of a Chief Communications Officer is now like a hockey goalie attempting to deflect nonstop slapshots, while simultaneously directing their team down the ice. It reminds me of what’s happened to educators over the past 20 years.

Teachers used to focus primarily on educating students. But now they must navigate a daunting array of challenges including the distribution of pharmaceuticals, surrogate parenting, chronic hunger, homelessness, substance abuse, gender inequity, systemic racism, the politics of vaccinations, and saddest of all, gun violence.

A similar phenomenon is taking place in the corporate world. As our government splinters, our society polarizes, our religious institutions weaken and our communities fray, the workplace has emerged as a kind of emotional and intellectual refuge, where people actually treat each other with respect and civility, united in a common goal.

In 2018, a Civility in America Survey by Weber Shandwick found that while 84 percent of those surveyed had personally experienced incivility, 92 percent describe their workplace as civil. Who would have thought that corporations would emerge as the last bastion of civility and integrity?

But it’s getting increasingly difficult for companies to maintain this distinction. Employees, customers and stakeholders are now demanding that brands take a stand on difficult issues. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 92 percent of employees believe their CEO should be speaking out on issues such as climate change, diversity, income equality, and immigration. This is where it gets particularly tough on management, and specifically on the communications department.

Consider the case of Goodyear Tire. The President of the United States called for a boycott of the company after learning that Goodyear disallowed the wearing of MAGA hats or “Blue Lives Matter” attire, while allowing Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ Pride shirts. The call for a boycott put Goodyear in a tough spot — however it chose to respond, the company could reasonably expect that half of the country would be upset. In these polarized and bizarre times, it’s the head of communications who often must navigate the company’s response to these periodic and unpredictable eruptions.

The implications are significant for both brands and career paths. The good news is that the function has never been more appreciated. The bad news is that the demand and stress have never been higher. The tenure of CCO’s will probably continue to decrease, as evidenced by the highly public ousting of the head of communications for the FDA after only 11 days on the job.

There is some comfort, though. As the job gets tougher and the stakes get higher, the value of the function should increase. This means enhanced funding of the department, expanded scope of responsibilities, the ability to attract a deeper and more diverse pipeline of talent, and finally, a rise in compensation for key communicators.

Assuming, of course, they can survive the role.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate advisor for Weber Shandwick Worldwide, offering counsel and expertise on role, structure and efficacy of the communications function. He is a member of the USC Annenberg Center for PR Board of Advisors.