Advice from today’s exec communicators

“I wish I knew then what I know now.” In response to a survey, 16 top communication pros tell their would-be successors what they’ll need to know to get by in the big office.

In a survey of 16 top corporate communications professionals at large firms across the country, executives were asked several questions focused on their perceptions of corporate communications courses and curriculum. Three questions, however, focused specifically on the executives’ own background and experience and what course of action they recommend for tomorrow’s communicators. The executives’ willingness to put themselves in an “I-wish-I’d-known-then-what-I-know-now” situation provides an interesting lens from which to view their perspectives on their own experience, and their desire to see tomorrow’s communicators help elevate the practice of communications to an even higher professional level. The respondents to this survey hailed from a wide variety of industries, including technology, real estate, communications, metals/ mining, insurance, manufacturing and financial services. In terms of firm size, each would be considered medium to large based on both revenues and numbers of employees. Firm revenues ranged from $58 million to more than $40 billion.* In terms of employees, respondents reported having more than 250 employees to 47,000. Specifically, each of these 16 top communications executives were asked the following three open-ended questions: 1 If you had the opportunity to teach corporate communication (as a course, guest lecture, workshop, seminar, etc.), what specific topics would you stress? 2 What route did you take in your career to end up in the position you hold today? 3 Knowing what you know today, what advice would you give to someone preparing for a career in corporate communication? Teacher for a day Several themes that emerged from executives’ thinking on what topics should be taught in a corporate communications course. No one course could possibly cover the entire range of activities these executives thought deserved exploration, but the most prevalent topics were internal (employee) communications, media training, crisis preparedness and reputation management. More specifically, one executive thought employee motivation and productivity were issues important enough to be covered in an academic setting. And because the executives responding to the survey realize some communicators might face the obstacle of not having been to business school, executives also were interested in students learning about creating a communications plan based on business strategy, or, as one executive put it, “the strategy behind what and why a message is crafted the way it is.” This executive added that students should learn “how to leverage PR as a business negotiating tool.” Other executives were clear in their desire for students to learn about business basics. Specifically, executives thought students should understand the basics of marketing and branding (arguably an element of reputation management, anyway) and finance, including the nitty-gritty of income statements, balance sheets and earnings reports. One executive thought one of the most important things to teach students was the “clear value of corporate communications and treating your corporate communications executives with the same level of respect/importance as other key executives.” This particular executive went on to say that students, before entering the professional world, should understand the value that communications professionals bring to the business. Specifically, students should “understand that relying on your corporate communications executives for advice is every bit as important as relying on your corporate counsel or chief financial officer.” As a parenthetical, the executive added: “many chief executive officers feel like they know how to communicate, and don’t listen well.” Finally, depending on the industry, some executives were interested in students learning to communicate more than what is legally required, and also about the “role of the company in public policy issues and discussions.” Specifically, executives thought there was room for students to learn “how to work with the federal and state government to advance the public as well as the private interests of the company.” Surprisingly, just one executive mentioned that students should be taught to measure the effectiveness of communications plans. This is important because, perhaps more than any other lesson learned, the ability to measure the validity of communication efforts is likely to prove to financially minded managers that communications can have a tangible impact on the bottom line. More journalism than finance Each of the executives surveyed was asked to provide a brief history of their academic and professional credentials, and one of the most interesting things each of these executives has in common is their education: seven (close to half) have degrees in journalism. Most are undergraduate degrees, with the exception of one master’s degree. One other executive has an undergraduate degree in radio, television and film. Just one of these executives holds a bachelor’s degree in a financial discipline, and just one holds an MBA. This is particularly relevant in the context of one executive’s thoughts: “An MBA is almost a requirement to coach the C-Suite today.” In terms of professional experience, some executives provided rather general answers, which are best summed up by these two: “[I] stumbled along, taking advantage of [the] best opportunities available” and “non-linear, on-the-job learning.” Perhaps not surprisingly, given their educational backgrounds, the large majority of today’s top-level communications executives surveyed started their careers working in a communications function—just one started out in a purely financial setting. The diversity of communications functions is interesting, however, because it attests to the variety of responsibilities taken on by communications professionals. For example, one executive started his career at an advertising agency in New York before moving into journalism. Two others also started their careers working in newspapers before making the move to corporate communications. Four executives started out in what would be considered traditional public relations positions: corporate communications, media relations and public affairs. While it’s interesting to know how top executives started their careers, communications is a profession that welcomes backgrounds of any type. No two people may have experienced the same professional accomplishments, but that’s probably what makes communications such a rich profession. As such, some executives thought positive professional influences and mentors would be more likely to make a good communications executive. As one survey respondent put it: “This very much is a profession that you have to learn and experience to really —know’ how to handle situations.” Advice for the next generation Perhaps because of their own educational backgrounds, or maybe because the business of communications has changed in the past couple of decades, executives generally agreed that advancement in this profession is dependent upon a knowledge of business. Some of the executives advocated for young professionals getting business training in school—preferably through an MBA or other business-school program while others seemed to think the communications profession calls for on-the-job training (again, underscoring the need for good mentors). Either way, executives thought students should have an understanding [of] how a company functions, especially on the operational side, and having the disciplined training to understand the dynamics of industries.” Suggesting a knowledge of business seems both obvious and practical: Executives say communicators can expect to be taken seriously only by having the business knowledge their peers have. In addition, though, one executive said a business background might literally pay off for an up-and-coming communicator. The advice from one executive: “Think about eventually earning a master’s degree in marketing, finance or a related field if you want additional (possibly higher-paying) career options.” Executives responding to this survey also suggested young communicators learn how to perform under pressure. That is, learning (even if it means teaching yourself) how to respond in a crisis situation. In terms of professional training, this type of readiness can be learned through journalism training or even simply by “read[ing] the newspapers and identify[ing] trends and issues and ask[ing] yourself how you would deal with it.” Of course, executives agreed that the foundation for a career in communication is built on good writing skills. Advice ranged from learning “how to write succinctly and with the proper —voice'” to “learn[ing] how to take information, analyze it and then communicate it.” The idea that a communicator’s skill is really rooted in his or her ability to write well has been a mainstay in thought going back many years. While it’s encouraging to hear a rudimentary skill like writing is still the price of admission for communicators, tomorrow’s generation of communicators needs to be equally well versed in the language of business. This signals a positive change for our industry: communicators are becoming a part of the overall strategic direction of a firm. One executive put it best: “The last generation of CPROs [was] professionals who were good writers and relationship builders. Today, the C-Suite relies on communications counselors who can provide fact-based, analytical communications strategies supported by good verbal and written skills.” Sue Westcott Alessandri, Ph.D., is assistant professor, advertising & public relations, at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University. She may be reached at

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