Senior public relations executives may have found a place in the C-suite at many of America’s more sophisticated companies, but their progression beyond corporate communications to broader responsibilities remains a rarity, and is worth celebrating when it does occur—as it did a few years ago for former GE vice president of corporate communications Beth Comstock.
Comstock had initially followed a relatively traditional public relations career path. She began her career in local television production in Virginia—including a brief time on camera—before making the move into public relations, holding communications and publicity jobs at CBS and Turner Broadcasting before joining GE’s NBC unit in 1993 as vice president of NBC News communications.
But in 2003, after four years leading GE’s corporate communications department, she was named by new chief executive Jeffrey Immelt (himself a veteran of the company’s marketing department) as GE’s chief marketing officer, a role that went beyond the traditional oversight of advertising and other external communications to include responsibility for transforming the GE culture, justly famous for its harnessing of process to achieve quality, into one that also emphasized creativity and innovation. In a profile for Business Week, she described herself as “"a little bit of the crazy, wacky one" at the company’s staid corporate headquarters.
While in that role, she launched a new corporate ad campaign, “Imagination at work,” which replaced the long- running “We bring good things to life” campaign, and featured the company’s aircraft engines and medical systems as well as its work in the energy, automotive and retail sectors. “Two years of research convinced us we didn’t want to be known for just appliances and lighting,” she explained.
In 2005, Comstock was promoted again, appointed president of NBC Universal digital media and market development, a new job at GE’s entertainment division leading the company’s digital strategy and content and distribution efforts focused on new digital platforms.
But in March of last year she returned to the parent company as senior vice president and chief marketing officer for GE, charged with leading GE’s organic growth initiatives, including marketing, sales and communications and with directing two strategic growth initiatives for GE: developing cross-business digital initiatives, focusing initially on consumer health; and establishing a network of external partners to extend GE’s leadership in environmental technologies.
“Beth did a great job defining and growing NBC Universal’s digital efforts,” said Immelt at the time. “Under Beth’s leadership NBCU created industry-leading advertising innovations for customers, will reach its $1 billion goal for digital revenues in 2008, a year ahead of schedule, and, in partnership with News Corporation, developed the premium video service hulu. I want her to use the same approach to drive digital excellence across GE.”
Despite her achievements, Comstock has never lost sight of her roots in public relations: at GE, brand-building and corporate reputation are inextricably linked, and the company’s success in both arenas can be measured in part by the fact that—despite a trying year—it was ranked sixth among Fortune’s Most Admired U.S. Corporations and ninth on the same magazine’s global list.
Says Harris Diamond, chief executive at GE public relations firm Weber Shandwick Worldwide and a recipient of one of last year’s Individual Achievement SABRE Awards: “In these rapidly changing times in the world of communications, we often talk in an aspirational sense about how public relations professionals could and perhaps should play a bigger role in shaping overall corporate strategy and in being the key driver of dialogue with key constituencies.
“Beth Comstock is a wonderfully talented example of someone who has demonstrated such abilities for quite some time and is a role model for all of us seeking to have a meaningful and substantive impact inside and outside the C-Suite.”