Communications & Public Relations

What Is a Chief Communications Officer?

What Is a Chief Communications Officer?
Effective chief communications officers must be able to illustrate how there is no “daylight between a company’s brand promise and its reality.” Image from Pexels
Craig Hoffman profile
Craig Hoffman January 20, 2022

Chief communications officers oversee all of an organization’s public relations messaging—including press releases and social media—as well as internal communications. Compensation in this high-paying c-level role typically includes substantial performance incentives.

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At most large companies, institutions, and nonprofit organizations, communicating their vision, products, services, goals, and accomplishments to internal and external audiences constitutes a massive undertaking. To manage it, they employ communication professionals who have the expertise to create and deliver the right message through the most effective messaging platforms to the right audience. If the company is large enough, that team is led by a chief communications officer (CCO).

In her Forbes article “Today’s Chief Communications Officer Is More Than A Storyteller,” Diebold Nixdorf’s VP of Corporate Communications Lynn Kier underscores three focus areas that chief communications officers must master to succeed.

Kier emphasizes that “internal relationships are just as important as external communications.” It is imperative that CCOs closely collaborate with all key internal partners to ensure everyone is on the same page when dealing with those outside the organization. Internal communication needs to be consistent across all departments because “this ongoing internal dialogue shapes the story a brand tells to external stakeholders.”

While the role of the COO continues to be that of chief storyteller, target audiences nowadays respond to brand narratives that are “authentic and mindful.” That’s why effective COOs must also be able to illustrate how there is no “daylight between a company’s brand promise and its reality.”

Finally, in our highly connected, “always on” age, Kier notes that successful COO’s must leverage “the power of integrated communications.” A fragmented media landscape means that reaching target audiences involves communications strategies that work across “digital, broadcast, print and social media assets.” Today’s COO monitors more channels than ever before, each offering its own rewards and risks.

So, what is a chief communications officer and how does this leader acquire the expertise to succeed? If you’re thinking about entering or advancing in the communications field, we have some answers. This article addresses:

  • What is a chief communications officer?
  • How much do chief communications officers earn?
  • What is a master’s in strategic communications?
  • Does a chief communications officer need a strategic communications master’s to succeed?

What is a chief communications officer?

Chief communications officers are executive-level professionals who direct an organization’s communication efforts. Most CCOs report directly to the chief executive officer (CEO) and are a part of the thought leadership of a company or organization, including the chief marketing officer (CMO) and chief financial officer (CFO). They may be the firm’s spokesperson and coordinate executive-level messaging among C-suite team members, investors, and other stakeholders.

CCOs typically have communications managers and a communications team working for them to create and distribute internal and external messaging. The internal audience include employees who need to be informed about human resources information, new company hires, and the organization’s strategic goals and accomplishments.

External audiences include investors, the press, industry peers, and the general public. Public relations, public affairs/community relations, and marketing efforts are a major part of these communications and can include investor relations, product announcements, corporate sustainability messages, and recruitment efforts. External communications include press releases, social media, videos, blogs, and more.

What do they do?

Chief communications officers oversee the development and implementation of strategic communication plans to ensure all internal and external messages are consistent in tone and align within the organization’s brand. They function as the firm’s chief storyteller and communication gatekeeper, having sign-off authority on all messaging that represents the company. COOs are responsible for a company’s reputation management, shifting into crisis management mode should circumstances dictate. It’s a demanding job that requires close collaboration with many constituencies in an organization while leading teams of marketing and communication professionals who create and distribute content across a wide spectrum of channels.

Where do they work?

Chief communications officer jobs are found in many mid-and-large sized organizations in just about every industry. Depending on the firm, some other positions similar to the CCO include public relations officer or corporate communications officer. Others may include the words “marketing” or “brand” in their job title.

How much do chief communications officers earn?

According to Salary.com, the average pay for a chief communication officer is $230,500. Salary ranges can vary widely depending on the applicant’s level of education and experience, as well as the organization’s location. Bonuses and other incentives push average annual income to $276,900. Those earning in the top 10 percent earn over $445,000 annually in salary and other compensation.

What is a master’s in strategic communications?

A strategic communications master’s is a graduate-level degree program focused on the theories and models of persuasive communication. It teaches the analytical processes and strategic practices used by organizations to build audience-based communication initiatives. Students are introduced to strategic communications functions in different industries and how they relate to a digitized world. Key competencies taught include communication theory, storytelling and digital media, quantitative research, campaign planning and evaluation, and public relations.

Admission requirements/prerequisites

Most strategic communications degree programs require a bachelor’s degree and undergraduate transcripts, a 3.0 GPA, Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) or Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) scores, a personal statement, letters of recommendation, and a resume/CV.

Curriculum

Strategic communications programs teach the foundational and practical applications of various communication endeavors. They examine the strategy behind developing organizational communication campaigns and how they’re applied across multiple departments and channels.

Specific strategic communications coursework focuses on research methods, legal issues, and how to incorporate visual communications into a communication plan. At Butler University, for example, strategic communications core courses include:

  • Foundations of Strategic Communication
  • Research Methods: Design & Analysis
  • Law and Ethics in Strategic Communication
  • Strategic Visual Communication

Specialization

There are opportunities for specialization in most strategic communications graduate programs, and often a student must complete a capstone project applying strategic communications concepts in real-world situations. These electives dive into specific multimedia channels and day-to-day organizational communication practices that graduates will use professionaly, depending on their area of expertise. At Butler, for instance, a student can specialize in the following areas:

  • Social Media Management
  • Crisis Communication Plans
  • Media Relations
  • Brand Strategy
  • Global Strategic Communication
  • Strategic Storytelling for Advocacy
  • Health & Risk Communication

Does a chief communications officer need a strategic communications master’s to succeed?

A strategic communications master’s program is designed for professionals looking to enhance their skills and knowledge of communications-focused roles in organizations. It’s an excellent advanced degree option for anyone on the chief communications officer career track.

The sheer breadth of communication strategies and channels makes a master’s degree advantageous for prospective COOs since there are so many subsets within the discipline, including social media, digital marketing, content creation, and advertising. In this regard, moving up to higher-level positions in communications like the CCO may require the expertise acquired through a master’s program.

Advanced concepts learned in a strategic communications master’s program include:

  • Applying theories and best practices to lead communication strategy on multiple media platforms aimed at diverse audiences.
  • Designing and analyzing research methods to drive informed communication strategy and address organizational goals.
  • Utilizing real-world case studies and simulations to learn how to strategize, plan, execute, and evaluate ethical and effective strategic communication.

Although it’s possible to achieve the CCO position without a strategic communication master’s, the corporate strategy and communication skills you’ll learn earning this degree are likely to make you a competitive candidate for this role when the opportunity presents itself.

Top strategic communications master’s programs

American University

American University’s Washington, DC location creates opportunities to prepare you for tackling some of today’s top social, political, and ethical communications dilemmas in your future career. In addition to the opportunity to work with a highly experienced faculty, students are paired with alumni mentors to bridge the gap between school and launching their professional careers.

Butler University

Butler’s ten-course, thirty-credit Master of Science in Strategic Communication is delivered completely online. Its graduates are equipped with effective communication strategies and the research techniques needed to enhance their communication planning and implement their campaigns via multiple digital media formats.

Columbia University

Columbia offers a range of both full-time and part-time paths to a Master of Science in Strategic Communications. The program has small class sizes, a highly customizable curriculum, and faculty from across relevant industries. Full-time students complete a graduate-level practicum and internship experience.

George Washington University

The Master of Arts in Strategic Communications program at GWU combines 30 credits of coursework with one of three capstone project options. The school is well-ranked by US News and World Report. Program graduates go on to work for the Department of State, CNN, and Politico.

New York University

NYU’s 42-credit Master of Science in Public Relations and Corporate Communication includes two concentration options: Public Relations Management and Corporate and Organizational Communication. Students on the former path learn to manage campaigns to achieve optimal results. The latter “focuses on clear and effective communication through all channels of corporate life.”.

Syracuse University

Syracuse’s Newhouse school is one of the premier communications institutions in the country. You can choose from four specialization areas in the online Master of Science in Communications: public relations, advertising, journalism innovation, and media management. Core course titles include Multimedia Storytelling, Social Media for Public Communicators, and Media Law. Standardized test scores are not an admissions requirement, and you can complete this program in 15 months.

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