Why the Rise of the Chief Change Officer Is a Business Imperative

New role needs to improve trust with corporate social contracts

Media has gotten a bad reputation lately, being seen as politicized, biased and depressing. Getty Images
Headshot of Richard Edelman

Despite the current strength of the global economy, with record stock prices and low unemployment, we live in a time of deep discontent. Fears of the pace of innovation, of downward economic mobility, of the possible loss of jobs to a machine or an overseas worker and of the loss of social status in an unfamiliar cultural context all play into an inchoate demand for change.

According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, business has emerged as the most-trusted institution in global governance, having recovered from its precipitous fall from grace in the Great Recession. Business is now expected to be an agile and inventive player, filling a void left by a paralyzed or ineffectual government. CEOs are speaking up, becoming public advocates on issues relevant to their employees, such as gender in the workplace or immigration reform. Why? Because the most-trusted institution in global governance is now “my employer” at 79 percent in the U.S.

Given this new trusted status, business is now in the best position of any institution to move society in a constructive direction. But to earn this broader mandate, it must act in a new way and operate with renewed accountability and transparency. This requires a more powerful role for the chief communications officer (CCO).

For the first time in our Trust Barometer’s 18-year history, media is now the least-trusted institution globally; it has particularly low trust in Western democracies.

Corey duBrowa, CCO of Salesforce, suggested recently a modification of the title to chief conscience officer. I believe that he is on the right path in suggesting a moral framework for this task. His idea properly casts business as having a deep ethical responsibility, as envisaged a century ago by company founders such as William Lever or William Henry Kellogg.

But as we consider the immense challenges of sustainability, unequal division of wealth, populist tendencies in the West and rapid technological change, I suggest that the new societal role of the corporation demands an even larger responsibility for the chief communications officer: chief change officer.

We already are observing the move of the CCO to a broader role as advocate for change. Sue Garrard, CCO of Unilever, is now also responsible for the sustainability strategy for the company. David Kamenetzky of AB InBev oversees corporate strategy and sustainability. Andy Pharoah, CCO of Mars, has sustainability and supply chain. This is moving the function to evolve how business is done.

The chief change officer must establish the social contract for the corporation. The 3 million truck drivers in the U.S., many of whom are employed by FedEx and UPS, are imperiled by the impending introduction of autonomous vehicles. It is for the CCO of those companies to work with the HR department and labor unions to find a way forward for the next decade. The CCOs of technology and social media companies will need to lead on establishing a new operating framework on data portability, an opt-out option for users and transparency around the use of data.

The new CCO must also reinvent his or her role as communicator. To date, we in communications have relied on media to be our primary information channel and source of truth. For the first time in our Trust Barometer’s 18-year history, media is now the least-trusted institution globally; it has particularly low trust in Western democracies. It is seen as politicized, elitist, biased, chasing clicks, ignoring average people and too depressing to read. As a result, 50 percent globally and 55 percent in the U.S. have opted to not use mainstream media at all in any given week.

In this world of weakened media and fake news, communicators must now recognize their new role as principal, not agent. We must provide high-quality information directly to the end-user. This will require every company to be its own media company, what we at Edelman call collaborative journalism. It should function as a news operation that speaks to stakeholders through its corporate channels and through social media. The tone should be natural and authentic, the format both long-form for substance and short-form with visuals for sharing. And employees should be the primary audience.

This comes with a responsibility that we should welcome: accepting the necessity of accuracy and accountability. We want to educate people so they can make better decisions. Our aim is to supplement mainstream journalism, which should still be the primary means of objective fact-gathering and dissemination. We should be the ones with the creative spark that starts movements, to bring purpose to each brand and to solve big problems in society.

From counsel and conscience to actor and creator, from what we say to what we do, the new CCO is the invaluable bridge to the future for the corporation.

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@richardwedelman Richard Edelman is president and CEO of Edelman.