Jim O’Leary, Chief Executive Officer at Weber Shandwick, North America, explains the shifts to the corporate affairs profession that have taken place over the past several years – and how the trends of today, for artificial intelligence to CEO turnover, will affect the industry’s future.
DOUG: Jim what’s the biggest challenge facing corporate leadership today?
JIM: Yeah, Doug I think the biggest challenge right now arguably is that is just more complex to be a leader than it’s ever been. What that means more specifically your CEO of board member or a member of the C-suite you have to do much of what if not all of what you always had to do. If you’re a CEO in today’s world that would be managing inflation and recessionary pressures and then of course all the things are typically doing capital allocation strategy in the rest. But now in addition to that you also got a navigate any number of issues many of which whether they’re geopolitical, social, economic, are issues that in the best corporations may not have gotten as actively involved in as they do today.
DOUG: Yeah, and sometimes there’s no choice not doing anything isn’t to win doing the wrong thing is a lost so, how do you navigate this complexity if your corporate leader at least you have tremendous experience in your amazing career and doing that. What are some tips you have, where do you start to navigate these complexities?
JIM: Yeah. I think what we have seen in the past probably five years, but maybe even more so is that the role of corporate affairs, the corporate affairs leader the corporate affairs function is more important than it’s ever been because that’s the role and that’s the person who typically going to be helping a CEO alongside maybe a general counsel and a few others, navigate all of the complexity that is new. And so, what do I mean by that specifically. Well, if you look back down the past five years first you had Covid and all the complexity that had to be managed, you know, the safety and health of the work force. Then you had the racial justice movement in that really rose to prominence in the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd, then you had the social justice movement that is still active and you see everything is happening to corporations like Target most recently last year was Disney and of course you have everything happening around sustainability and social impacts, the push back against ESG, push back against will capitalism and then you have the geopolitical tensions, right, the invasion of the of Ukraine first. Most recently we’re seeing this week in terms of the war in the Middle East. The conflict between Israel and Hamas. All of these things are things that chief corporate affairs officers and corporate affairs functions are helping CEOs and other leaders navigate and wrestle with and this is interesting in a number of ways. Interesting one because this is an opportunity for these people in this function and all of us in corporate affairs to provide more value particular to the c-suite then perhaps ever before. It also creates additional challenges that we have to deal with on a day-in and day-out basis. And for many people that can be quite difficult.
DOUG: Yeah, I would say it’s put more stress on the corporate communicator as their role has become more valuable, if not just invaluable.
JIM: That’s exactly right. And you said it better than I’m going to it. Also. I’ll just repeat back what you said but more valuable an invaluable and also frankly a lot harder, right? I think it’s arguably always been hard to be a Chief Communications Officer, member of communications. I think it’s harder today than it’s ever been, and I think that that difficulty is also why the value creation potential is greater than has ever been.
DOUG: One of the things that we’ve seen from our perspective is creating content for clients. The silos that used to be separate are all comingled. Internal comms has become external comms since that stuff is going to get out their external comms goes back and effects internal. So, for a communicator, are you finding it’s best to try to separate them out lump them together. What do you feel is best practice? Or is it different depending on the specific company situation.
JIM: Every company’s situation is different, and I do if I feel like the silo wing of yesteryear is insufficient to deal with the challenges of today. So, I would not recommend siloing. I mean obviously there needs to be a very thoughtful distribution of who’s going to you know cover what especially in a world where we’re increasingly under greater pressure and stakeholders are expecting more from corporations and brands then they ever have, right? What’s interesting right now is you look at the most recent data that we have here at Weber Shandwick. You still have roughly two-thirds of employees and consumers that are pushing for corporations and brands to play an active role in either taking positions on or taking action related to social issues. At the same time, you have the pushback against much of this that you’re over all experiencing and seeing in the world. But, like I mentioned before the anti, you know, ESG movement of pushback against capitalism and a number of related things.
DOUG: Yeah, and both sides and the media will give those equal voices or disproportionate voices. It’s not based on the number of people saying that. In addition to affecting what goes on with corporation. There’s also been more challenges for leaders on the agency side. What kind of guidance can you give for being an effective leader at an agency?
JIM: You know, whether you’re a leader of a corporate affairs function or communications function or a leader of an agency, you certainly need to in today’s world as we talked about with all the complexity you need to roll with it you need to be empathetic with your workforce. You need to think about things from a much more multi-stakeholder perspective. And you know, I always also argue that you need to be incredibly agile, right We’ve joked in the past that agility is the new stability.
DOUG: That’s a great line and given in your role obviously, we’ve talked about what’s let us to this point we’re at today. What’s the future of communications look like to you? Because things are changing so rapidly.
JIM: Yeah, I think right now there’s three defining characteristics of the both what does half the changes that are defining the future and then where it’s headed. Right, so much of which we’ve already talked about. First is that the role of corporate affairs is more important, so, we’re seeing more corporate affairs leaders in higher positions. In fact, I think right now roughly 25% all most of the Fortune 100 have Chief Corporate Affairs Officer significant increase from the past. This is driven by the fact that you know, there’s a need to manage any number of issues on a near-daily basis. Issues that we’ve already talked about in this discussion. This week i’s the of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. So there’s any number of issues that need to be successfully navigated. Second is, you know digital technology tools AI, generative AI and the disruption that that is causing, everywhere but particularly in our industry. And so no conversation these days would be complete without her discussion around AI. I would argue that AI and digital tools and tech are already allowing us as communication practitioners, corporate affairs practitioners, to do more sophisticated work we’ve ever done before. I would also argue that there’s a much greater opportunity for automation then is currently being captured that it we’re just scratching the surface on. And as evidence of that, I think there’s some data from Sequoia that indicates and I’m not sure I agree with this but anyway roughly 80% of content is going to be AI generated in the next couple years. I think it’s written content. So, I found that quite interesting. The other thing I already mentioned this earlier too, but it’s certainly a defining characteristic of the world were in today. There’s a much greater expectations for a wider group of stakeholders in there ever been, and there’s a lot of conflict at the intersection of that, that requires you do near permanent navigation, and I think as a result of all of these things you’re seeing, you know, as we talked about before more pressure on corporate affairs and cort com practitioners because there was much more pressure on CEO’s. And if you need any data that provides evidence related to that, I think you could look at the most recent topple rate data. Topple rate, the rate at which CEOs are losing their jobs. And I think if you look at the most recent set of topple rate data, you’ll see that CEOs are losing their jobs or being pushed out of their jobs or vacating their jobs at a rate that is higher than it’s been some time.
DOUG: Given the way trends are going, do you think corporate communicators, CCOs are going to start to become CEOs at companies, or will it still come from a different path?
JIM: I think it is more likely that CCOs will continue to evolve into Chief Corporate Affairs Officers. And the difference being that the Chief Corporate Affairs Officer is typically overseeing a combination of Corporate Communication or communications, sustainability, essentially social impact as well as in a public affairs and government relations, and I have increasingly seen these things combined under singular leaders who are have a seat at the at the highest level in the c-suite alongside the CEO or you know underneath the CEO obviously alongside the general counsel the Chief People Officer, the Chief Financial Officer, and all of the rest.
DOUG: This has really been a great discussion. Appreciate your insights. Anything you want to leave the audience with?
JIM: Yeah, I think right now you know, what are some of the most interesting things that were seeing as we’ve already talked about right? Then need to continually navigate tricky issues. The massive transformation that is being driven by a generator of AI and any number of digital tools, tech and data, as well as you know, the increased expectations that we continue to see from a wider variety of stakeholders. It leads us to the conclusion that the role of Corporate Affairs and Corporate Communications continues to be arguably more important as ever been. So, fundamentally, this is both a challenge and opportunity and I think that the difference between the people who see it as a challenge versus those who see it as an opportunity is ultimately going to be the difference between who is successful in our profession and who is not.
DOUG: That’s really great way to leave it and it’s definitely been a great opportunity to speak with you.
JIM: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me on again. I really appreciate it!