CCO wisdom and the future of ESG at PRSA’s Tri-State District Conference

The event brought together some of the region’s top minds in comms to chart a path forward for the profession.

Last week, comms leaders from all around the New York City metro area and beyond gathered at the New York Athletic Club for PRSA’s Tri-State District 2023 Conference, sharing their ideas on the current and future state of comms with a focus on trends they’re keeping an eye on.

The day began with a keynote speech from Sally Sussman, executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer, who shared her thoughts on how comms pros can best position themselves in a rapidly changing professional landscape. She told the gathered audience that the results will shine through with enough practice, hard work and experience.

“We are the best advertisement for our own work,” said Sussman.

Her words set the stage for a series of expert panels that touched on the finer points of both internal and external communications practices.

Rethinking ESG comms

Amid several years of social upheaval, the afternoon’s first panel sought to define what comms pros should look to do when developing an ESG strategy. Moderated by Carmen San Segundo, global communications director, ESG and CSR (corporate social responsibility) at IBM, the discussion explored how  themes of sustainability, the rise of artificial intelligence, (AI) and transparency intersect.

At the top of the panel, Kasia Reterska, executive vice president of social impact and sustainability at Weber Shandwick, addressed the ill-defined nature of ESG efforts overall.

“ESG is too abstract, too nebulous as a concept,” she said. “We can offset this challenge by distilling and simplifying the language around ESG and making it more tangible. We have an obligation to educate our stakeholders about how we define ESG, and often when it’s clearly explained, there is buy in from leadership.”

Toby Usnik, head of communications at the British Consulate General in New York, added that  meeting leaders and stakeholders where they are on ESG is the best way to garner authentic support.

“I think now more than ever, things in life are on something of a spectrum, be that neurological, political, or otherwise,” said Usnik “I approach the topic of ESG by talking to people and understanding where they are on the spectrum of the issue. See where they want to move on it, and hopefully it’s to a more responsible point.”

The panel also discussed how organizations should decide what issues to weigh in on in their ESG efforts. Usnik said that they need to weigh the cost of not speaking up on issues, and that ultimately, authentic ESG comms that center on the “S” should start with leadership.

“Organizations need to ask themselves what’s really important to their brand identity and their employee population,” he said. “Once you start your ESG campaign, keep it up and measure it – and when you fail, be prepared to reflect on it.”

The view from the CCO suite

The event was capped by a panel that featured a group of chief communications officers (CCO)  discussing  industry trends and tenets of good comms leadership. Moderated by Karen Mateo, chief communications officer at PRSA, the lively conversation provided a view into how comms leaders can be influential and effective within their organizations.

When asked how CCOs can navigate the challenges and opportunities that come with the many roles comms leaders play, Bill Hankes, CCO at Forbes, reminded the room that the role of a CCO is still relatively new and that those in the role need to wear multiple hats at times.

“It’s not enough to be a great communicator; you need to bring something else to the table as well,” said Hankes. “It’s important for us to remember that we have a lot of skills that we bring to the forefront. We belong at the decision-making table of the organization, and that’s more apparent than ever to me.”

The panel then shifted gears toward how CCOs should deal with the flood of disinformation on social media these days. including how they evaluate and decide how to respond when it impacts their organization. Deirdre Latour, chief communications officer at Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corporation, said that comms pros should look at these issues on a case-by-case basis, but should take care to keep control of the message.

“If people are talking about you and you do nothing, you are allowing them to create the narrative,” she said. “Don’t just respond to the crazies, but if it’s strategically important to your business, I think you have to step up and say something.”

The panel and conference were capped with the group opining on the future of the comms profession and the skills comms leaders need to face it with.

“If you don’t understand the world around you, you’re at risk of being tone deaf,” said Hankes. “It’s all about understanding the context you’re dealing with as a communicator.”

Latour added that beyond a sharp business acumen, comms leaders must also develop soft skills — a process that starts from within.

“It’s important to learn about yourself and understand who you are and what triggers and motivates you,” she said. “In today’s world, you need to have empathy and actively listen to be the best leader you can be.”

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