Paul Holmes 13 Jan 2012 // 5:07AM GMT
The news that former eBay communications chief Henry Gomez has landed the top public relations position at HP comes as no surprise. After all, Gomez has worked closely with new HP chief exec Meg Whitman for the best part of a decade, both at the online auction site and during her ill-fated bid for the California governorship. But it does highlight what I suspect (based on observation rather than any great wealth of data) is a trend: the growing prevalence of what I would describe as “the personal CCO,” which is to say a chief communications officer with a very close relationship to an individual CEO, often following that exec from one job to the next, functioning as right-hand-man (or woman), confidante and trusted advisor. In some ways, this can be seen as a positive development (certainly for the individual CCOs who benefit from such close working relationships). It indicates that CEOs are taking public relations seriously, that they believe it is critical to full the senior communications role with an individual they trust and respect. But I do wonder whether this trends exacerbates one of the problems that holds back the discipline in the long-term, which is the failure to “institutionalize” the public relations function in the way that better-established but no more important functions—legal, finance, operations, etc.—are institutionalized. I don’t have a strong sense (again, data are lacking) about how many CEOs take a personal CFO or a psonal legal counsel with them from job to job, but my suspicion is that it’s quite rare. And that’s because there is an innate respect for the finance or legal function, which means that the person who heads that function has the CEOs respect until her or she does something to jeopardize that respect. In the case of public relations, however, every individual communications pro needs to earn the respect of every individual CEO, pretty much from scratch. There is still very little institutionalized respect for the function. It’s difficult to know to what extent the rise of the “personal CCO” is a symptom of this problem and to what extent it is—if not a cause—at least an obstacle to progress. But it is something the industry and its leaders should be concerned about. I also worry that the close personal relationship between a CEO and his/her CCO could inhibit the CCO's ability or willingness to provide challenging and unpopular counsel.