The Rise And Rise Of The Corporate Affairs Director

By on October 29, 2013

The role of corporate affairs director used to be a sleepy sinecure for company time-servers. But now keeping a firm’s comms plates spinning is rapidly becoming the hottest gig in town…

In business, every era is defined by its must-have skill – in the dot-matrix 1980s it was IT, in the slick and shiny 1990s it was marketing and in the boom-then-bust early years of the 21st century it was the finance men (and they were usually men) who bestrode the scene.

But in today’s open-source and always-on world, the killer skill is communications. Professional communicators are taking over, one tweet at a time. Even our esteemed PM was once, whisper it, a comms person. Talk about a misspent youth. It’s a trend we have noted anecdotally in these pages before, and now there is some hard data to help quantify the growing stature and importance of an organisation’s most senior communicator, the corporate affairs director.

In a new report entitled A Seat at the Table: The growing influence of the corporate affairs function in FTSE 100 companies – revealed exclusively by MT – leading headhunter Spencer Stuart has cast some light on exactly how and why the status and significance of corporate affairs directors – ultimately responsible for everything to do with internal and external communications, government relations, PR and public policy – have changed.

‘In the past, corporate affairs was a total backwater, a job for retiring general managers,’ says Jonathan Harper, a partner at Spencer Stuart and co-author of the report. ‘But now, 81% of the 33 FTSE 100 corporate affairs heads who we interviewed report directly to the CEO.’ The reasons for requiring such a fast-track line into the boss are not hard to fathom – firstly, since the financial crisis, public trust in business is in pretty short supply and, secondly, the pace of modern communications means that it takes but a few short hours for a storm in a teacup to become a fully fledged PR tornado. Just look at what happened to Tesco when the horsemeat scandal broke.

And when it comes to a company’s reputation, as far as the outside world is concerned it’s usually the CEO’s neck on the line. The corporate affairs director’s job is to act as trusted adviser and make sure that the boss’s head remains attached to his or her shoulders – at least until the rest of the main board directors decide otherwise.

‘The challenge of this role is to navigate what is right for the CEO and the company, while also serving the rest of the board who may have a completely different agenda,’ says Harper. It’s also apparent that, as the role of chairmen has become a more public one, they too have started to work more closely with their head of corporate affairs.

Of course, managing the message has always been the key comms capability: what’s changing now is that corporate affairs directors are also elbowing their way onto the tables where the big calls are made and becoming part of the decision-making process. According to the survey, 82% attend meetings of their firm’s executive committee, with some 42% sitting on the committee itself.

But if the role is changing, so too are the people doing it. The days when corporate affairs directors were either long-serving insiders who knew their way around the business or ex-senior journalists who knew their way around the media and its seedy haunts are drawing to a close.

These days, the people everyone wants are those with government communications experience and, according to this research, that’s all down to the mass of additional political and regulatory scrutiny that has devolved upon public companies in recent times. So even firms working in traditionally lightly regulated industries need a better understanding of public policy and the dark arts of lobbying if they are to grow.

No surprises then that 32% of those surveyed were from a public affairs background, and Harper expects to see that figure north of 50% in a few years’ time. The fact that they are used to managing both the permanent secretary and the minister in a government department helps too – the relationship is seen as a good analogue for that between the CEO and the chairman in a plc.

But, despite the whiff of intrigue, Malcolm Tucker wannabes need not apply. With teams numbering up to 600 strong at the top of the FTSE, today’s corporate affairs directors need to be adept managers, motivators and recruiters as well as being able to punch above their weight in Whitehall.

Given the special adviser nature of the relationship between CAD and CEO, one of the more surprising findings is that 42% survive in their post for at least 18 months after a change of chief exec. That could be because they have strong relationships with chairmen, too. When it comes to the subject of what is coyly referred to in these rarefied circles as “remuneration’, it’s a case of the bigger, the better. Although actual figures are not disclosed in the report, those in the FTSE 30 are the best paid, earning up to 5.6 times as much as their oppos at the bottom of the FTSE 100, with the difference mainly in the size of their long-term incentive plan.

Here at MT we wanted to translate that into real money, so we made a few discreet enquiries of our own. The result? Although they might well be the lowest-paid director on the ExCo, a corporate affairs boss in the upper reaches of the FTSE probably won’t be taking home much less than £500,000 a year, including bonus.

So what should ambitious young comms execs with their eye on that half-million-pound prize do to get on? The answer is – leave. Of those surveyed, 68% were recruited from outside their current organisation and two-thirds of them were cross-sector hires, suggesting that industry expertise is not regarded as a prerequisite for the top job in corporate affairs.

But despite their growing influence, it’s still pretty rare for a CAD to make it all the way to the CEO’s chair – it’s hard to be taken seriously as an adviser and a candidate for the top job simultaneously.

To find out what life is like as one of this new breed of heavyweight FTSE alpha-communicators, we decided to ask. The interviewees above are all the head of corporate affairs in their organisations, and they all took part in the Spencer Stuart survey.

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