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FCA’s new Global CCO focuses on Corporate Reputation

In an exclusive interview with Aberje, Niel Golightly states that he will work actively to reinforce FCA’s value given that the Public Relations, Marketing, and Communication areas already well established within the company.

Niel Golightly

Aberje attended the inauguration of the largest automotive design studio in Latin America, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) Design Center Latam, in the city of Betim (state of Minas Gerais). Held on August 15, the launching was paired with the exhibition Beauty in Motion – Icons of Italian Design, which features more than 100 pieces, including automobiles, artwork, objects, and multimedia installations, referring to technology, futurism, and neorealism.

On occasion, Aberje general director Hamilton dos Santos spoke with FCA Global CCO Niel Golightly, an executive who took over in December 2018 amid changes made by the company’s new CEO Mike Manley – until then, the company did not have this position.

Golightly has an atypical communication trajectory. He started in the US Navy as a fighter pilot and later took the role of General Colin Powell’s speechwriter at the Pentagon. It was his debut in communication. From the public area, he migrated to the private sector and, before taking on leadership at FCA, Golightly was Vice President of Foreign Affairs at Shell.

Niel Golightly, Fernão Silveira e Hamilton dos Santos

Hamilton dos Santos – What would you say are your main challenges as a communication professional at this very moment? As a global CCO for FCA?

Niel Golightly – First of all, I call it an opportunity, not a challenge. I think the opportunity is to build on a very strong platform of individual product brands, something that FCA has built over the last 8 to 10 years – we’ve got Fiat, Alfa, Dodge, Jeep, Maserati. So, the opportunity lies in building over top of that a corporate presence or a corporate reputation that both lends additional value to the individual brands and that the individual brands can create value for this corporate presence. You notice that I’m not calling it a corporate brand because you don’t consider FCA to a be brand. But we do know and are increasingly conscious to the fact that FCA is a corporate entity, something that has a set of values and principles, taking very specific actions when it comes to investments and policies. All of that matters. A very thoughtful, comprehensive view of what that corporate reputation should be is something that a CCO (Communications Chief Officer), and his or her communications team should be responsible for. I think that this opportunity is important in a couple of different ways. One is, consumers we know are increasingly paying attention to the values that are behind the brand that they buy. Therefore, one of the opportunities is helping to articulate the values of FCA, in a way, if they respond to the customers or a brand.

Hamilton dos Santos – It means that although you keep being a global and corporate company, FCA will respect more and more the local cultures where the business is.

Niel Golightly – Part is that, so that’s an important point as well. The way I’ve just described is the set of expectations that not only consumers but also other stakeholders of the corporation have of the role of the corporation. And I think we’re seeing this developing more and more, as we’ve seen major societal challenges like climate, the environment, income inequality, diversity, water. They are massive challenges increasingly beyond the ability of individual governments to handle by themselves. We see the need for the institutions across society to join forces to play a role in solving some of these major challenges. I think the industry – being it the car or the energy industry, where I’d been most recently with, or any other industry – brings certain tools to solving some of those challenges, alongside the tools that governments have and that are absolutely central.

Now, the point that you’ve just made is also important. I was in the car industry 15 years ago and I’m back on it now. Lots of things have not changed but one that has changed that I observed is a pendulum swing from a preoccupation, almost an obsession, with globalization. Fifteen years ago, companies need to be sort of homogenously globally in all regions of the world, with common platforms, products, and system. Some of this line of thought is still relevant, but we are starting to realize that individual regions and markets are evolving in different ways, with different consumer preferences, policies on regulatory environments, and expectations from stakeholders and the society. So, while they’re some aspects of running a global car company that can be globalized – and should be globalized for economies scale and so forth –, there is also a deeper appreciation that Brazil requires a different set of products, and a different approach to the market than, for example, China, Germany, Canada, or the US.

Hamilton dos Santos – I’m sure that you place reputation management in the center of the whole communication area. Is that so?

Niel Golightly – Absolutely. It has led to a little bit of a – I don’t want to call it a culture change, but – a culture shift within FCA. Because for the last ten years FCA has been going from recovering from near bankruptcy for the two merged companies to building its financial strength back. The focus was very much on brand, selling product and the communications function was mainly an arm of marketing pushing PR for the brands. Such aspects are still very important and part of what we do, but corporate reputation is now overlaid on that.

Hamilton dos Santos – When it comes to issues such as activism and the specifical criticism against cars, is there anything that the whole industry could do together? Or should each company act on its own?

Niel Golightly – I think the question has to be answered in two different ways, at least. One is that, when it comes to standards, policies, regulatory advocacy, and even certain kinds of new technology and infrastructure, the industry is most effective when it works in collaboration. So many questions have to be settled about where standards will go, especially when we look at things like the development of infrastructure for powering vehicles, or for recharging electric vehicles in the future. Certain standards must be communized across the entire industry. Therefore, there’s value in that collaboration.

However, there’s also a huge competition for the best idea. The role of competition, of each company trying to figure out what is the best way, is the good side of capitalism, something that has been built on for so many years and will continue to be like that. Hence there are two different dynamics at play.

Hamilton dos Santos – Our recent report on leadership asked our members what would be the three or four main capabilities they should have to make communication help the business achieve its best results. What came first was, “The CCO or everyone on the board has to have a deep knowledge of the industry they work”. It’s a different case for you since you were outside the automobile industry. How was that? Would you say that this answer is right? Was it difficult to get a picture?

Niel Golightly – No, and for a couple of reasons. One is, I used to be in the automobile industry since I had the previous Ford experience. I actually think there’s value in being an outsider. I would question and challenge the premise of the question. Do you need to be a deep insider to be successful as the CCO for a company? I was not a deep insider of the energy industry when I left Ford and went to Shell, and I succeeded for 14, 15 years in Shell. It happens for a couple of reasons. One is, yes, you’ve to learn fast, you’ve to learn the basics, but the work of a communications leader is not so much about being very deep into all the nuts and bolts of that company or even that industry. In fact, it’s about bringing a set of problem-solving skills, a set of outside perspectives, an ability to create relationships and value from relationships, an ability to see a picture and articulate it into a broad vision clearly understandable to targeted audiences.

I’d say that there are five things that a communications leader – being he or she a regional or a global leader – need to be able to do. Very conveniently, it spells out the word CLEAR.

It’s “C” for Communicate and all the aspects of communication that go with that. All the different channels, the good understanding of the conventional media, new media, digital media, storytelling, visual storytelling, communicating in two ways – listening as well as speaking –, knowing when to advocate, knowing when to listen, when to acknowledge, and all the different aspects of communication.

There’s Leadership, the “L”. It’s about knowing how to set a vision, what that vision should be first and how to articulate it; finding the right people and placing in the right positions; making sure that you’ve got a good team around you, and making sure that they’re being developed in the right way.

There’s the “E”, which is Engage. In my view, communication is less about delivering messages and more about the diplomatic engagement between a company and its audiences and its stakeholders. Thus, I think of communications is being less of an Information Ministry and more of a Foreign Ministry sort of model, in which you understand who all those audiences are; what their needs and their expectations are; negotiate win-win relationships with those stakeholders. It’s all in this Engagement category.

The “A” is Advise. Being an adviser to the CEO, an adviser to the senior team. A communications person is in a unique position to be able to do that, because of all the people around the CEO’s table, the communications leader is one of the few that has, that can be seen to vindicate the CEO’s job. He’s not competing in a PNL role with all the other division leaders. The communications leader can seat in that group and have the kind of relationship with them that is not threatening.

Hamilton dos Santos – Would you say that this generation of communicators is working like that?

Niel Golightly – They should be. The current leaders of communications functions should be helping the rising generations to learn those skills. It’s not just the mechanical skills or knowing social media or measurements, for example. I mean, those are important, but those are transactional, mechanistic skills.

It’s CLEAR – Communicating, Leading, Engaging, Advising – and there’s the last one, “R”, Reflecting, being able to step back. In fact, it goes back to the original question: Is the deep knowledge of the industry so important? Or is the ability to step back and say, ‘Ah, I see some of these trends that are happening in this industry’. Where are these trends leading us? What are the implications of these trends when you look over the horizon or around the corner? How are those trends link up with the other things that happen with other industries on either side of us? The professional has to have the ability to reflect and not just think something like, ‘Well, what phone calls and emails I have to answer today’. It should be, ‘Here’s where this company needs to be regarding its stakeholders three years from now, five years from now, ten years from now’. So, the answer is “clear”.

Hamilton dos Santos – Richard Edelman told me once that all company is a media company. Is Fiat a media company?

Niel Golightly – Not yet. I think as communications team we need to do some thinking whether that is really the right answer, because when Richard says that – and other people have said that too –, he’s pointing to very obvious opportunities based on the technologies available to us to go directly to our audiences. I think there’s value in that; there are probably good reasons to be doing that. We do some of it; obviously we got around social media channels and so forth and it’s very helpful to us. However, I think it’s complicated that corporations play this role or have to do so because of the phenomenon the traditional media community struggling to get its credibility back. It needs to get it back… I hope it will.

Fernão Silveira, Niel Golightly e Peter Fassbender

Watch the interview: