Paul Holmes 25 Apr 2012 // 8:34PM GMT
There was a time when it seemed as though senior corporate communications positions might increasingly be filled by line managers, when companies beginning to realize the critical nature of public relations believed they needed people with real business experience—which is to say, not PR people—to lead the function. It was—and still is—far less common for a public relations person to be elevated to a senior operational role. While individuals from finance, operations, and marketing have frequently been elevated to CEO positions, it remains almost unheard of for a public relations professional to make the same move. Almost, but not quite. There are a couple of notable examples from recent history: David D’Alessandro, who joined John Hancock Financial Services in 1984 as director of corporate communications and rose to be chairman and CEO (and author of three best-selling business books); and of course Beth Comstock, who had a three-year stint as President of Integrated Media at NBC Universal. (Anyone have any other examples?) And now Sue Clark, who this week was announced as the new managing director, Europe, for SABMiller, after recently serving for eight years as the company’s director of corporate affairs, responsible for responsible for investor relations, media relations, corporate social responsibility, political and trade relations, issues and crisis management, brand communications, and internal communications. Announcing her promotion, chief executive Graham Mackay cited her role “protecting our license to trade and developing our businesses sustainably for the benefit of all stakeholders.” That makes sense. The beer business, perhaps more than most, operates under intense public scrutiny, and it must earn the public trust if it is to avoid harsh regulation and restrictions on its business. I’d hesitate to extrapolate a trend from a single instance, but I have long argued that when organizations are making policy decisions, they need to consider financial, operational, legal and reputational aspects of those decisions with equal care. There is no reason why the individual responsible for reputation should be less qualified for the ultimate decision-making role than those responsible for any of the other three.