VMA Insights: CEOs and what they’re looking for in today’s chief communications officer

VMA picture

I’ve been doing some late night reading of a rather interesting piece of research. Commissioned by the recruitment firm, the VMA Group, the study reached out to business leaders across Europe to ask a simple question: What do CEOs expect of today’s chief communications officer?

The research looked at a number of key areas, and I’ll outline the key findings below.

  • The Value of Communications
  1. Although the value of communications as a central business operation is implicitly accepted by CEOs, many communications directors still need to make a more convincing ROI case for the impact of their own work.
  2. CEOs are still uncertain that the company’s social media activity is driven by either a strategic purpose or a clear sense of the desired returns.
  3. Reputations are more fragile than ever. CEOs frequently see this as the key value point provided by the communications director.

“We see a corporate communications director as the builder of the brand value proposition, the custodian of the corporate reputation – not in a reactive way but proactively. In order to sell our products and services, increasingly we first have to sell the company. Whether it’s government giving you incentives, or it is customers buying because they trust you. Unless you’ve got a meaningful brand proposition you can’t get off first base.

A strategic communications director understands that and understands that’s their role, and it really ought to have as much value on the balance sheet as other assets of the business because any strategic move will create stress points in the brand proposition that need to be managed.” David Lockwood, CEO, Laird PLC

  • Strategy: Is Communications Trusted
  1. Communications directors are frequently involved in strategy creation; almost always at least with some input.
  2. The Majority of CEOs actively involve the communications director when there is a demonstrably ‘communications-centric’ issue.
  3. Three core strategic viewpoints that communications directors bring to the discussion: how to translate the strategy into content and channels; and the reputational rewards and risks of strategic decisions.
  4. CEOs from multinationals see communications’ input more broadly and progressively – as a vital strategic voice in all business decisions, especially from the perspective of reputation and brand.

“I think it’s obvious that a communications professional needs to be closely linked to the strategy because what they work on – formulating the communications and regulatory environment – is of strategic importance. So communications and public affairs needs not just to be ‘part’ of the company strategy but actually linked to the strategy – wired into the board and well resourced. If it’s an afterthought you might as well save yourself the money and not do it.” Wim Mijs, CEO, European Banking Federation

  • All Change – The New Communications Culture
  1. The digital revolution has brought arguably even more significant changes to the approach and culture of communications than to the core skills of the job.
  2. The ‘message control’ model is over. Key challenge: communications professionals must somehow now find a new way to create alignment among audiences without ever dictating to them.
  3. Authenticity and transparency are the essential tonal cues today – otherwise your communications will be dismissed out of hand.
  4. Audiences expect evidence of a new type of business model – socially responsible, publicly responsive, democratically inclusive.

“We’ve noticed a big and increasing demand for transparency. Our consumers and stakeholders at Arla want to know where their food is coming from. They want transparency in the supply chain. And I would say that the balance between a ‘communications’ approach to stakeholder engagement and a ‘marketing’ approach is shifting in favor of communications. In my business, that’s manifested by an increasing preference for having very honest, authentic, transparent conversations, and moving away from grand claims, mass advertising and so on.” Tomas Pietrangeli, MD, Arla Foods

  • The Challenge of Filtering in an Age of Noise
  1. Discernment and filtering have become core skills – the ability to select from a vast and noisy information flow what is of actual value to the business.
  2. Communications professionals need to rise above the manias and mass panics the online world can create, providing a cool head in a crisis.
  3. A key, proactive part of filtering is to anticipate major disruptive events coming down the pipeline and to have a plan of action for how to deal with them.

“I don’t think anyone’s figured out quite how corporate communications works in a world where social media is on the scene before you are. Trying to control the message is really tough in that environment, of course. But it’s the speed with which other people out there react – with real-time messaging before you’ve even had a chance to get your messages out and establish the facts.” Mark Tanzer, CEO, ABTA

  • The Need for True Leadership
  1. Core technical skills are still important; they must now be supplemented by more core business skills.
  2. CEOs want more than support, counsel or executive ‘translation’ services. Businesses now need true leadership from communications directors.
  3. Proactive endeavour is the critical element – delivering new business growth, rooting out commercial opportunities, driving change internally.

“I find that communications people should be closer to the business. They should be able to understand the company figures properly – to understand the business, but also where it’s heading and what issues it’s going to face. In general, if communications people have sufficient insights in the business, I truly believe they are able to generate more value.” Paul de Krom, CEO, TNO

  • The Future: A Profession in Revolutionary Change

There’s no key findings here (I’ve highlighted the capabilities required by CEOs today in the image at the beginning of the article). However, I do want to pull up one last quote, as it’s particularly apt to the Middle East, where we have an issue with speaking truth to power and instead focusing on political maneuvering inside the organization.

Before that, I’d like to say thank you to the VMA Group for this thought-provoking report, especially the International Association of Business Communicators EMENA board member Willem de Ruijter, for handing the report out to IABC EMENA and pushing this onto the agenda.

“The communications director works in the same room in the building as the secretary of the board – in fact we are all now on one floor, we do not have separate rooms anymore. S/he has full access to everything, no restrictions. S/he is actively involved and is asked to stimulate and to give feedback. Her/his message should be frank when required… and provocative too. S/he needs to be able to tell a senior leader who has worked at KPMG for 25 years that he or she does not possess the correct KPMG vision. That takes a certain character.” Albert Röell, CEO, KPMG NL

For your own copy of the report please reach out to the VMA Group via this link.



The PR industry needs to do much more for employees and their mental health

For many of you, the headline will be no surprise. When it comes to mental health issues, the public relations and communications industry just isn’t doing enough. A survey undertaken by the PRCA and ICCO, in partnership with IABC, across Europe and the Middle East underlines the scale of the issue that is facing the industry. Here are my highlights from the 140 plus respondents.

1. Mental Health is an issue for many of us

Mental Depression Suffering PR people

A quarter of respondents to the survey said that they had suffered from mental ill health

A quarter of those surveyed said they’d had mental health issues, the majority of them being diagnosed (either professionally or self-diagnosed) with depression or anxiety.

2. PR Practitioners don’t feel the industry is accepting of people suffering from mental ill health.


The majority of respondents felt that the PR and communications industry isn’t accepting of people suffering from mental ill health

There’s a widespread perception among people working in the PR industry that the industry as a whole isn’t willing to help those suffering from mental ill health. A quarter did say that they felt the profession was fairly accepting, while almost half said the industry was either not very accepting or very accepting. Almost a third responded by saying they didn’t know.

3. Few Organizations have a mental health policy in place


Less than ten percent of respondents answered that their firm has a formal mental health policy

What’s most concerning is the the apparent lack of any formal mental health frameworks or policies in place among both agencies and client-side teams. Fewer than ten percent of respondents said their team had any systems in place. I’d assume this would also extend to insurance coverage for mental health issues. If there are policies in place, it’s clear that they’re not being communicated effectively to employees.

4. Workloads up, and Stress is also on the rise


Unsurprisingly, over fifty percent of respondents felt more stressed today than they did a year back

These responses mirror my own observations about workloads. The industry is struggling with workloads, especially on the agency side where margins are tight. Over half of respondents said they’re suffering from more stress today compared to 12 months ago, partly due to internal pressures and also partly due to client demands (this was a frequent issue that was flagged up by agency people, underlining the lack of understanding many on the client side have on agency pressures).

5. Colleagues, not Managers, are the go-to people to talk about mental health


Employees are much more eager to talk to colleagues, rather than managers. There’s a 50/50 split on those who would be willing to talk to colleagues, compared to a 40/60 split for those who would prefer to talk to their manager.


Management need to do more to be approachable on the issue on mental health. This may prove a challenge for some, especially if the employee believes that the manager is responsible for his or her poor mental health.

This is just a snapshot of the research that the PRCA and ICCO will be releasing today. I’d like to thank both organizations for their work, as well as the CIPR, for promoting debate on a topic which has been ignored for far too long. The PRCA will be hosting webinars on mental health and how you can best deal with this issue. The CIPR also has a host of resources online. Please do visit their respective websites to keep up to date on the issue. I hope more associations begin to understand the importance of talking about this issue, so that those in our industry who need help get it, and so that employers realize the importance of promoting mental well being and a balanced approach to how we work.