Communications executives are playing an increasingly important role in corporate America as accounting and ethical issues have moved to the top of the government’s and media’s agendas, according to a new survey conducted by KRC Research for Weber Shandwick.

The study found that of all major events over the past five years, the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has had the most significant impact on the corporate communications profession. In fact, 86 percent of corporate communications executives agree that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has dramatically changed the nature of their jobs, as companies have made the communications departments a more integrated and critical component of the executive team.

“The highly publicized scandals at Enron and other corporations did for the private sector what Watergate did for the public sector, bringing a sweeping level of change,” said Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick. “The push towards transparency has increased the value and responsibility of the corporate communications function. This job is now on the front line of corporate reputation management, crisis response, litigation, and a range of other issues that communications executives a decade ago could not have imagined.”

According to Leslie, “The role of the corporate communications professional has increased in complexity and importance: demanding greater expertise and incurring stronger pressure from the top.”

The study found that over the past year, corporate communications executives dealt with issues associated with management and corporate governance with greater frequency than with issues such as labor disputes, product recalls or environmental infractions. More than eight in ten (81 percent) addressed issues regarding government regulation in the last year while more than two-thirds dealt with issues associated with a lawsuit against their company (69 percent).

Also, more than one in five (22 percent) of corporate communications executives had to publicly address allegations of improper behavior by a senior manager. At the same time, one in ten (11 percent) addressed a consumer boycott, and nearly a third of the executives addressed a strike or labor dispute (32 percent) or allegations of an environmental problem (32 percent) in the last year.

During the past five years, the job of the corporate communications executive has become more challenging, with more than eight in 10 (86 percent) of the executives polled stating that their jobs have become increasingly complex and 91 percent reporting that their job has become at least somewhat more difficult.

The role of the corporate communications department has also increased in stature, the survey found. For example, 85 percent of corporate communications executives believe that senior management has increased the amount of attention it pays to corporate communications, while 76 percent say that their CEO is personally involved and engaged in corporate communications on a regular basis. Nearly three out of four (73 percent) of the executives report that senior management considers the job they do to be highly important.

That said, just 45 percent believe that the work of their department is extremely important to the overall success of their company, and only 31 percent predict that their senior management would agree.

The issues that corporate communications departments must address have also become more challenging. More than three-quarters (79 percent) say the sensitivity of the issues they deal with has increased and just under two-thirds (63 percent) report that they handle crisis situations more frequently.
The survey results are based on 104 interviews conducted with senior-level corporate communications executives.