It’s hard being a chief communications officer (CCO). The news cycle never ends, audiences are hard to reach and the stakes always are high.
Even inside the organization, there are challenges; to survive requires managing and maintaining critical relationships throughout the C-Suite, from the CEO to the chief security officer. One of the most strategically significant relationships is an alliance with the general counsel.
This may seem counterintuitive. General counsels prefer a low, safe profile. Their job usually calls for them to prevent stories, not create them. But together, a CCO and a general counsel can make a powerful team.
In addition, the general counsel often is a close confidant of the CEO. This means the general counsel is privy to myriad information and strategic plans unknown to other senior managers.
Part of the CCO’s job is to be in-the-know and respond to situations at a moment’s notice. A friendly general counsel can serve as a CCO’s radar—illuminating pending deals, warning of bubbling threats, working side-by-side during crisis situations and providing critical inside perspective.
The often-all-encompassing role of the general counsel provides regular access to key influencers, including board members, other C-Suite executives and division and unit leaders. The general counsel can be a CCO’s booster with these influencers.
A supportive general counsel can endorse communications initiatives, strategies and messaging in front of these key audiences. Having the general counsel’s stamp of approval can be invaluable. Similar to other members of the C-Suite, the general counsel often is one of the most trusted voices within a company.
It’s ultimately the general counsel’s job to have a heavy hand and enforce compliance, ensuring policies and procedures are followed.
Nobody likes disciplining or terminating employees. They’re two of the most stressful and uncomfortable parts of leading a corporate department.
A close relationship with the general counsel can smooth those steps by defining why the actions are necessary and how to do them in the most responsible way. In certain situations, the general counsel can even step in and play the heavy, giving the CCO the opportunity to remain above the fray.
The Inbox Shuffle
Another reason to build a strong relationship with the general counsel relates to priorities. The general counsel’s office almost always is swamped with requests. A close relationship can determine whether the communication department’s pet project is prioritized or drowns in sea of corporate bureaucracy.
Knowing the general counsel well can help ensure communications’ requests stay top of mind, even if they’re not necessarily at the top of the inbox.
As trained advisors, general counsels are equipped to help communicators think through options, weigh trade-offs and complicating factors and make intelligent decisions.
Integrating the general counsel’s advice is critical when communicating externally and internally. The general counsel not only can confirm that communications’ initiatives are legally compliant, but also ensure they fit the company’s strategic vision.
The general counsel may not be the first person a CCO thinks of when creating a list of colleagues to form a strong relationship with — but failing to create that bond would be a mistake.
A CCO who works hand-in-hand with the general counsel is set up for success.
Jim Moorhead is a senior director for crisis management and litigation communications for APCO Worldwide. Jo London is senior director and head of the corporate communications practice in APCO Worldwide's Washington, D.C., office.