“Mr Communicator: You will never become a CEO”

At marketing conferences the message is clear: “go and sell more stuff.’ At medical conferences it’s “sell more drugs.” So you’d guess the takeaway from the European Communications Summit in Brussels might be “sell more messages.”

Wrong. The 1,000-plus professionals of the European Association of Communications Directors got bombarded with a blizzard of contradictory and sometimes plain crazy advice.

Here’s a random pick from the keynote slurry doodled in my conference notebook:

  • Journalists now get the stories and their steers from social media
  • In terms of monopoly, Microsoft is harmless compared to Google.
  • Find a new sexual partner every three months.
  • Become a communications architect because architects seem to get more CEO face-time than PR men.
  • Have opinions.
  • PR is out
  • Your next product launch/sexual encounter/child will always be better than the last
  • Don’t air disputes in public.
  • The days of Facebook and Twitter are slowly (going to be) over.
  • Beware charisma.
  • Twitter’s your distribution tool
  • Use Greek ‘practical wisdom’.
  • Smaller hamburgers give more satisfaction than big ones.
  • Lady Gaga is up there with Mother Teresa.
  • Multitasking messes up your brains

But through all this cacophony comes one doom-laden, over-riding drum beat (and yes, there was a group endorphin-releasing collective drumming session to loosen up the boys and girls). The drum says: “You will never become a CEO.”

That might sound like an impossible aspiration, but for Europe’s smarter corpcomms elite, the news comes a something of a blow. Some of them clearly thought they had what it takes. After all, don’t CEOs these days refer to themselves as “Storyteller in chief” or Chief Communications Officer”? Surely a real communications guy has a shot at the top?

After all, a survey published at the conference (European Monitor 2011) seemed to show that communicators’ influence stood at an all-time high.  While 77.9% of communications advisors are “taken seriously” by management, fully one quarter of these folk in Northern Europe enjoy seats on their Management Board.

What’s to stop them following in the footsteps of marketing professionals  or strategy wonks who’ve climbed the greasy pole of CEO-dom?

A lot, it seems. The message is that even at the top, corpcomms professionals are doomed to play the role those pilot fish who clean the shark’s teeth on the Great Barrier Reef, or those birds that perch on the back of buffaloes in the African savannah and pick off the ticks.

Being an advisor is just not the same as being a decision-maker. It takes a posse of university academics and  a former minister  to administer the coup de grace to unrealistic aspirations.

At the European Association of Communications Directors Summit in Brussels June 30/July 1st, the harsh reality was delivered by keynote speaker Stephen Carter, a former advertising kingpin who adroitly abandoned the sinking ship of former UK premier Gordon Brown’s doomed administration, to join Alcatel-Lucent as a marketing whizz.

Carter, who describes himself as an “accidental communicator,” jumped ship from being an adviser to become a decision-maker. Although 59.9% of communications managers report directly to the CEO, they will not join him. Only a tiny fraction of communicators ever make it to the top.

Why? Perhaps the answer was provided by Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent in the UK and another keynote speaker in Brussels. Furedi highlighted the paradox that it is the “authorised communicators”: and NOT the leaders who most often have the authority to communicate the most critical matters.

Service providers or managers of information occupy the hot-seat. Because corporate culture  passes the buck of leadership by using “communication templates” which constantly address the institutional fear of being “off message,”  communication professionals get all the kicks and no thanks for their work.

And in the same week that Europe’s communications professionals were told: “you will never become CEO,” the Pope – after all a kind of CEO himself — sent his first ever Tweet.

It was the week that Rupert Murdoch’s News International – which paid US$580 million for MySpace – accepted just US$35 million for the abandoned property, and during which  Google launched its own social media service, Google +. The week folk started chattering about the sudden droop in Facebook’s ever-expanding number of subscribers, and what this might mean for its US$ 100 billion plus IPO.

Maybe next year’s message will be clearer. How about “go sell more tweets”?

Richard House


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