Ewan Larkin
Apr 1, 2024

'Connecting all the dots': The rise of corporate affairs in-house and at agencies

It’s an oversimplification to say corporate affairs has absorbed communications. But its rise has benefitted business at large—and agencies in the firm of higher billings.

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

What is a “chief corporate affairs officer” anyway? 

There’s little doubt that after the Covid pandemic, communications executives have more stakeholders and issues to manage than ever before, and many are getting a new title to reflect that change. There’s no clear-cut definition for a chief corporate affairs officer, but the job can encompass everything from internal and external communications to government affairs and public policy to social impact and corporate giving. 

PepsiCo chief corporate affairs officer Stephen Kehoe says the emergence of the role reflects the complex business landscape that companies face, having to navigate geopolitics, social issues and increasing regulatory pressure. Corporate affairs, he says, can “connect all those dots” and give context to different audiences, as well as explain to the C-suite how it “helps deliver the company’s strategy.”

“Anything you say has a knock-on effect into how the company shows up to a range of different stakeholders,” Kehoe says, adding that, as businesses come under fire, communicating consistently with different audiences becomes even more important. “Gone are the days when you could divorce communications from, say, government affairs.”

Tara DiJulio, who was recently elevated from chief communications officer to chief corporate affairs officer at GE’s future aviation spinoff business, GE Aerospace, says the rise of corporate affairs exemplifies how communications has developed over time. She says it’s moved from a siloed department to a strategic priority.

“In this day and age, stakeholder communication needs to be so in sync and consistent. The company has to be speaking with one voice,” DiJulio says. “By having alignment with the corporate affairs function, you’re able to make sure you’re proactively telling your story to all those [audiences.]”

Instacart chief corporate affairs officer Dani Dudeck says tying comms to divisions like government affairs and policy improves efficiency, especially in an industry that moves as rapidly as technology. 

“Sometimes these functions are disparate and tucked into different pockets throughout the organisation. [When that happens] you lose speed, you lose clarity, you lose consistency and you lose prioritisation,” says Dudeck, who was CCO at gaming company Zynga before Instacart. “[By] putting them under one roof, you get this unique competitive edge.”

At PepsiCo, head of global comms, Chris Manzini, reports to Kehoe. But like DiJulio, Kehoe refutes the notion that corporate affairs have absorbed communications. He says Manzini’s role as the food and beverage giant’s top communicator, where he advises CEO Ramon Laguarta and the executive committee, is “no less significant” because he reports to a different department.

“The role of the chief communications officer is as important as it’s ever been; it’s just that it now fits within a more relevant function than maybe it would have in the past if it was, say, put under marketing,” Kehoe says. 

Since February 2023, companies including Walgreens Boots AllianceStarbucks and Papa John's have also moved communications staffers into the chief corporate affairs officer role. 

Agencies are noticing a shift in clients’ thinking. Weber Shandwick chief corporate affairs officer Chris Deri says his firm is increasingly working with clients’ corporate affairs divisions as opposed to solely comms. 

He says companies are looking for PR agencies to act more as strategy consultants and offer context about topics like generative AI, energy and mis- and disinformation. That means tapping firms for data and insights on everything from capital markets to policy-making, as well as analyses on stakeholders such as employees, customers and investors. 

“Different business dynamics are all converging. The response from companies is to either formalize a corporate affairs function or to have communications [act] as more of a corporate affairs function,” says Deri, who also serves as president of The Weber Shandwick Collective’s C-suite advisory business. “From an agency standpoint, that requires a real understanding of multiple stakeholders in a singular, whole-cloth way.”

The uptick in other types of work doesn’t mean clients are looking for less communications support, but it does necessitate a more calculated approach to how agencies deploy their teams, Deri says. 

“We still have senior people working on comms, but a portion of a campaign, [for example], is executional. Mid-level colleagues could do a lot of the execution…The corporate advisory work is more purely senior-led,” he says, adding that access to agency executives means higher billings. 

Instacart handles a lot of its communications internally, but the company has worked with Bully Pulpit International for many years, in part because it understands that, when comms and policy are working together, “we can create a bigger impact,” Dudeck says. 

Kehoe says PepsiCo has placed a greater emphasis on PR agencies to research its brand and recognise the factors that could affect the company’s license to operate. 

“Our expectation now is that an agency is able to put PR and corporate communications into the broader context of the world today,” he says, adding that it’s important for firms to have a diverse mix of talent. 

“We need people that are great storytellers and implementers of good PR programs, but then we also need to know we can call on higher-level expertise to come in a heartbeat and talk to senior people about strategy and geopolitics … There’s a real onus on that right now.”

Deri says it’s incumbent on corporate affairs and communications to better understand how the C-suite is thinking, pointing to a February TWSC report that found only 6% of executives believe mis- and disinformation will have a significant impact on their business in 2024.  

“As a communications person witnessing the real impact of mis- and disinformation, that, to me, says, collectively, agencies and in-house corporate affairs leaders need to educate our executives about what is really happening,” he explains. 


Related Articles

Just Published

3 hours ago

FCB India appoints Ashima Mehra as CEO

Mehra has over 18 years of experience and was most recently at Leo Burnett India.

4 hours ago

Big Brother is watching you: Audible stages 1984 ...

George Orwell 'returns' to The Observer in new ad campaign.

4 hours ago

Signs of light: Is fun coming back to adland?

The best reason to work in advertising should be that it’s fun, says Angus Tucker. Without it, advertising is just telemarketing.

4 hours ago

M&C Saatchi to consider US acquisitions to bulk up ...

A new leadership team will address the group’s underweight presence in the world’s biggest ad market.