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Roger Bolton: “We have to be better at what we were good at in the past”

Hamilton dos Santos*

According to Roger Bolton, president of the Arthur W. Page Society, one of the most prestigious communications organizations in the world, the role of the CCO has become increasingly important in today’s business environment. He further believes that although the digital economy has not changed the essence of the profession, there is a need for more training in the management of people and processes

Mr. Bolton previously held the position of Senior Vice President of Communications at Aetna. He also worked at IBM. As a communicator and executive, he is one of the most respected leaders in the US public relations industry. His importance and influence grew after being appointed, in 2011, President of the Arthur W. Page Society – the highest regarded and prominent association of communicators and public relations executives in the United States. Bolton, who is the chief executive of the organization, directs a small staff, oversees operations, represents its members and manages the activities of the association. He is also a trustee and a past chairman of the Page Society. Since taking over at the association he has encouraged the organization to invest in research that investigates and analyzes the critical issues facing the profession. The most recent project is The New CCO Report, a qualitative and quantitative study of the new roles and skills that businesses are demanding of communications executives. He spoke with CE about this research and related subjects in an interview during the Arthur W. Page Society’s 31st Annual Spring Seminar, held in New York this April.

The following excerpts from the Interview will be published in the Corporate Communications Magazine (Revista CE), edition 98.

Roger Bolton, president of the Arthur W. Page Society

Roger Bolton, president of the Arthur W. Page Society

CE – What is the future of communications associations?

Rober Bolton – I think this is an increasingly important time for communications professionals to get together to share best practices and best learnings. The environment in which business operates is changing very rapidly. There are significant competitive challenges from disruptive business models. There are also very significant challenges in terms of building and protecting brand and reputation as a result of stakeholder empowerment, social media, globalization and other trends. The profession as we’ve known it is changing. All the things we’ve learned, and done well, are in a sense even more important today than they have been ever before. We must be even better at those things. But, at the same time, the environment is changing in ways that require us to acquire new skills. I wanted to say this at the outset because for me it increases the importance of organizations like Page and Aberje, and others around the world, to be a convener of conversations. They are leaders in terms of understanding the environment, imagining how we might be better prepared to deal with it, and then being a vehicle for professionals to exchange ideas to make each other better.

CE – Some say that the digital culture, specifically social networks, will make associations obsolete.

Bolton – It is unlikely to change them significantly. Social media and the opportunity for digital conversations enhances the ability of members of existing organizations to communicate more effectively with each other. I don’t think it replaces the need for personal engagement and the human contact that one gets in meetings, but it can enhance it. I don’t see how people self-organizing through social media could replace the ability of organizations like Aberje or the Page Society to provide the convening. This year the Page Society has a four million dollar budget, we have 30 meetings planned and many ways to bring people together. We are here to help people facilitate their own contacts with each other. We do this in order to give people the engagement. I don’t think the need for us to be the convener of conversations will ever go away.

CE – In your research about the new CCOs, what impressed you the most?

Bolton – We’ve done some other work called the Page Model which says that the CCO’s role is to help the enterprise be truly deserving of trust by building a strong corporate character. And then based on that character to build stakeholder engagement around it. After we published that report and began our conversation about it we began to realize that it didn’t cover everything. There were aspects of the role of the CCO within the enterprise that we hadn’t addressed. So we set out to ask ourselves, and this is the power of an organization like this, because we have many of the leading communicators in the world; we asked each other,  “What is changing, what’s different now and how is your role changing?” It took us two years of research and interviews and thoughtfulness to come up with these insights. There were basically three. First, the fundamental role of the CCO as the guardian of reputation and as a senior business counselor, is more important than ever before. It requires the CCO today to be attuned to social, political and economic trends, and to stakeholder desires, more than ever before, and to help the enterprise respond to those. Second, that the CCO, because everyone in the enterprise now needs to be engaged in this effort to build the authenticity that we we’re talking about, has to be able to be influential within the enterprise around stakeholder engagement and around corporate character. That requires new skills in terms of integration and building support from colleagues. Thirdly, and this is the one that strikes us as most new, is that the CCO of the future will be a builder of digital engagement systems that touches the entire enterprise. Let me explain it this way. The CFO, the head of finance, owns systems and processes that permeate the enterprise around financial reporting. The head of HR owns systems and processes that permeate the enterprise around personnel management. Historically, the head of communications owns what? Well, a few speechwriters, some media relations people, maybe some folks who talk to analysts and the like, but nothing that touches all employees, no systems and processes. What we’re saying is that in the environment of the future everyone needs to be a communicator. You don’t have just a few media relations people who talk to the New York Times or the leading newspaper in Brazil, but you have everyone engaged within their own networks. That requires organization and an understanding of the needs of stakeholders down at the individual level. It also requires an ability to build content that’s sharable and useable for those stakeholders. It requires training and the provision of content in an easy way to every member of the enterprise. This ability and skill of building systems and processes is something that we’ve not historically had in our profession, and it’s new.

CE – Would you say Page is becoming more global?

Bolton – Yes, our primary strategic objective, in fact, is to be the global organization for chief communications officers and CEOs of leading public relations agencies. We don’t wish to compete with Aberje in Brazil, or with EACD in Europe, or APACD in Asia, or Dircom in Spain. We want to be the organization that provides the most senior people in our profession with the opportunity to have a global organization. I think we have to admit that today the Page Society is a US-based organization with about 12% of its members located outside of the United States, most of them in Europe, just a few in Asia and only two in Brazil, one of them is Professor Paulo Nassar. But, if you look out two, three, five, ten years from now I envision an organization that will truly be global. One global organization with one governing board, a global membership on that governing board, regional committees – meaning the Americas, Asia, Europe, however you want to organize it. One global organization, all meetings open to all members, and a thriving conversation around the world where we’re constantly learning from each other. That’s who we hope to be and we have a lot of work to do. We know that and are determined to do the work. We are going to have our annual conference, which is our signature meeting every fall for members only, in London this year. It will be the first time we’ve gone outside of the United States for our big meeting. We’ve had many smaller meetings outside of the US.

CE – What is the structure at Arthur Page? How millennial” is the association?

Bolton – We’re a very small organization with 650 members, 75 of those located outside the US which is about 12%. When I got here four years ago we had four people on the staff. We’re currently hiring two more on top of what we’ve already added, so it will be about 12 by the end of this year. We have some senior people, we have some millennials, including some interns. I’m looking out of my office right now at three or four young people who are very eager and bring a new perspective which is helpful. But the meeting content is the primary responsibility of our members. For the Spring Seminar, for the annual conference and for other major meetings we have a committee which is chaired by a member. Kelly Parsons from New York Life was the chair of the conference and it was her responsibility, along with the co-chair Andy Polansky of Weber Shadwick, to build the program. The staff provides a lot of support. We convene calls with the speakers to make sure everybody understands the theme and is familiar with the Page Society, and brings us the kind of message that we want. Of course, we provide all the logistics, such as hotels, etc. I’ve often said that I want the Page Society to always be a member-driven organization with staff support, not a staff -driven organization.

CE – Can you speak about the theme of the Spring Seminar this year – Millennials.” Why should communications executives be concerned about them?

 Bolton – Well, the central question is, are they really that different? Actually, I’m writing up my thoughts about the conference and I’m going to blog about this. The title will be, “Are the millennials really different?” If they are, we need to understand this because they’re coming fast, and as we now see, some of the oldest millennials are now CEOs. They have started businesses, they are employees, they are becoming much more important in our organizations. By 2025, 75% of the work force, at least in the US, will be millennials. They’re increasingly influential as consumers as well. Many of them are not yet fully established in their careers. They’re coming of age at a difficult time economically so they don’t have the kind of wealth that baby boomers have. But they will have, we hope, over time. They will become much more influential as consumers. So if they’re really different, we as enterprises (when I say “we” that includes them, they’re part of our enterprises) need to understand them. What are they like? They’re tech savvy, they’re connected, they’re diverse. At times they are accused of being spoiled and entitled. As parents – I’m a baby boomer, I’ve got millennial children and we’ve spoiled and coddled them, given them things that we never had. But the most important thing to me is they are activists. They are very interested in social purpose, in society, and my generation was as well coming up. But somehow these young people coming up today are more willing to put their sense of purpose ahead of financial and other kinds of considerations. And that means, I think, that we as communicators, and we as business enterprises, and nonprofit enterprises, and governmental enterprises, for that matter, need to be more responsive to that. We must understand what has always been true – that we have a responsibility to society that’s bigger than making money, that’s bigger than just making good products and making our shareholders happy. We have a responsibility to run enterprises that make the world better. I think this emerging millennial influence on that is extraordinarily helpful. It makes businesses and government more responsible. I think the CCO and the corporate communicator are very well positioned to be the voice within the enterprise, to be responsive to that millennial stakeholder desire, and to seek to be influential within the enterprise to keep that focus.

* Hamilton dos Santos is Managing Director of Aberje – Brazilian Association of Corporate Communication. Journalist, graduate and post-graduate degrees in Philosophy at University of Sao Paulo