At the Hub: How Communications and Corporate Affairs Leadership is Evolving

DEIDiversity & CultureConsumerExecutive Search
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September 20, 2021
5 min read
DEIDiversity & CultureConsumerExecutive Search


In a dynamic and tumultuous world, chief corporate affairs officers and chief communications officers face no shortage of challenges in managing their organizations’ reputations. To learn more about how the role is evolving, we recently spoke with T.R. Straub and Jennifer Doidge, leaders in Russell Reynolds Associates’ Corporate Affairs practice, about what they’re seeing in the talent market for these increasingly important roles.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, corporate leaders have had to address a wider range of issues than ever before – employee wellbeing, social justice, corporate reputation and sustainability, to name a few. How are the roles of corporate communications and corporate affairs leaders changing in response?

Jennifer Doidge: More and more CEOs and leadership teams are turning to these executives, looking for strategic counsel to help the company respond to ever-changing circumstances. All of the events of the last 18 months have pushed the executive team and board of directors to think differently about reputation. They are asking questions like: “Are we approaching this correctly, considering all implications?” ”Are we investing enough in the function?” “Have we handled or anticipated these issues appropriately?” and of course, “Do we have the right people in the right roles?”

With that, the skill set required of a chief communications officer or corporate affairs head is adjusting a bit. It’s now incredibly important to have the ability to think like a business leader, and not wait to be told what to do but rather have a view on how the function might drive and better support business objectives.

The balance of stakeholder influence seems to be shifting as well. Your recent research shows that employees are on par with customers when it comes to determining a company’s reputation – and both of them are ahead of investors and other external audiences. Does this mean internal and external communications are in essence the same now?

T.R. Straub: Internal employee engagement often used to be a secondhand consideration for a communications leader, but it’s really come to the forefront over the last year because of the pandemic and social justice issues, along with sustainability. These are all issues that employees care about, along with customers and other external stakeholders.

There’s also a growing appreciation that reputation management is often best led by an ‘inside out’ approach, where employees are galvanized to advocate on the company’s behalf. That means alignment on internal and external messaging and approach are critical now, more than ever. With a more distributed workforce, the tools and channels used to reach employees also have to become more sophisticated. We see more investment in employee mobile platforms, real-time messaging and internal chats that mimic the digital platforms used for external audiences.

What about the need for companies to respond more often to political dynamics and controversies?

T.R. Straub: In this super-charged political environment, having a public affairs perspective – both international and domestic – regarding how a company‘s actions tie into partisan conversations is increasingly important. These dynamics are not clear cut, especially for companies with expansive geographic footprints with polarized constituencies.

Jennifer Doidge: With technology companies in particular, we’re seeing strong interest in candidates who have direct political experience working for a campaign or governmental leader. These professionals understand campaign-driven communications, how things play in DC and state capitals, and typically have strong issues management skills.

Given the broad remit of CCOs and CCAOS, do you see the need for more cross-functional collaboration?

T.R. Straub: Without a doubt. As a corporate affairs leader, you have to think and operate cross functionally. You have to understand the CFO’s world, the CHRO’s world, and the rest of the C-suite – and then understand how to message, engage and persuade their stakeholders. There’s a significant element of being a connector across the enterprise.

Jennifer Doidge: It really is a hub role. This is the person who has the holistic view and stitches it all together with a thoughtful perspective and coherent approach.

Looking ahead, how might these CCO and CCAO roles evolve in the next year or two?

T.R. Straub: The headline is that they are increasingly senior, with more executive visibility, and the stakes are higher, with increased demands on transparency as decisions and operations are more in the spotlight.

Jennifer Doidge: Especially now, companies want someone in this role to help them think differently than they have before and push the envelope. We expect to see even more of these leaders move across industries – bringing different perspectives and skillsets that challenge a typical industry approach.

What advice might you have for an aspiring CCO or CCAO?

T.R. Straub: Focus on building your business acumen and ensure you maintain a cross-functional mindset, balancing both internal and external dynamics. Develop and evolve your expertise deliberately; chief corporate affairs officers tend to start with one piece of the puzzle and grow over time. Find your passion and expertise, then leverage that to continue to grow your career and impact.

Jennifer Doidge: Earn a seat at the table so that communications/corporate affairs is a part of strategic discussions where reputation-impacting decisions are being made. Bring a business-first mindset to conversations and ensure your communications agenda aligns with business objectives. And build and deepen your cross-functional relationships – with marketing, legal, risk, etc. – who will be key partners as your influence grows in the organization.


Jennifer Doidge co-leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Corporate Affairs practice. She is based in San Francisco.
T.R Straubco-leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Corporate Affairs practice. He is based in Washington, D.C.
Alix Stuart is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Center for Leadership Insight. She is based in Boston.