Said Here, Stays Here

By Michael Hardy | Spring 2014

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The Conference on Corporate Communication is not your average academic conference. For one thing, it’s limited to 36 participants, the number of people who can sit comfortably around a table in Room 200 of McKenna Hall. Unlike most conferences, you have to be specially invited to attend the CCC—this year had a waiting list of several dozen people. Then there’s the gag rule. Nothing said at the conference can be repeated without permission from the speaker.

That rule, along with the small size of the conference, creates an unusually intimate atmosphere. “Every other venue for corporate communicators to gather puts them on stage and makes them quotable—they’re on record,” said conference founder and organizer James S. O’Rourke IV (BBA, MGT ’68), teaching professor of management and the Arthur F. and Mary J. O’Neil Director of the Eugene D. Fanning Center for Business Communication. “That encourages people to speak more freely in the room about issues they have faced and issues others are facing.”

Over the conference’s 16 years—it was founded in 1997—the status of corporate communication has risen dramatically. Today, with the advent of social media, companies are promoting their brands and managing their reputations in radically new ways. “The corporate communication function for many years has been a kind of sidebar for chief executives and C-suite executives,” O’Rourke said. “It’s now at the top of the mind of many of those executives. They care deeply about investor relations, employee communication and engagement, media relations—in particular about social media.”

This year’s conference featured six presentations spread over a day and a half. The speakers came from companies such as McDonald’s, Target and ESPN. Jeanne Trogan, the executive director of Global Internal Communications at Dell, spoke about managing communications during Michael Dell’s attempt to take the company private. The talk was entitled, “Barbarians at the Gate.”

Sosti Ropaitis, the director of social media at McDonald’s, talked about the need to “humanize” brands through the creative use of social media. Rather than speaking in a monolithic corporate voice, Ropaitis said that McDonald’s uses social media to connect on a playful, one-on-one level with its customers. For instance, McDonald’s often receives tongue-in-check queries on Twitter about its “McDonaldland” characters. One common question: “Is the McDonaldland police force understaffed, since there’s only one Officer Big Mac?” Ropaitis’s team replied directly to the question by writing that, since there was only one Hamburglar, there just wasn’t much crime in McDonaldland. “We try to have a little bit of fun, because we’re a fun brand,” Ropaitis said.

One of the talks that generated the most discussion was by Colette LaForce, the senior vice president and chief marketing officer at the technology company AMD. LaForce argued that marketing and communications, which corporations typically treat as separate functions, are actually converging due to the rise of social media. For instance, AMD recently launched a new product with a major communications push on Twitter and Facebook. According to LaForce, that strategy resulted in unprecedented sales.

“We’re able to connect with buyers the way we’ve never been able to connect with them, thanks to social media,” LaForce said. “That’s enabling us to drive sales. It would not surprise me if in the coming years communications teams begin to be measured by sales growth.” That would mark a major change from how public relations professionals were evaluated in the past, she noted.

LaForce’s argument was intentionally provocative, and it triggered a polarizing response from conference attendees. Some agreed with her assessment, while others argued that marketing and communications should be kept separate. That kind of spirited, candid discussion is what the conference has become known for, and it’s why O’Rourke has refused to expand the number of participants. “With a hundred people in a large auditorium, it becomes a one-way communication,” he says. “The way it’s organized now, people will not just disagree with the speaker, they’ll disagree with each other. They’ll offer up their own experience and their own observations as well as asking questions.”

Over the years, presentation topics have ranged widely. In 2001, the chief communications officer for Toys R Us discussed the challenge of opening a new flagship store in Times Square. Another year, the head of communications for a company that was about to file for bankruptcy turned to her fellow conference attendees for advice. The talk turned into an impromptu strategy session. At the height of the Great Recession, Selim Bingol, the vice president of Global Communications and Public Policy for General Motors, gave a talk about bringing that company out of bankruptcy and back into the public markets.

The variety of topics covered, as well as the exclusivity and anonymity, are what keep people coming back to the conference year after year.

“It’s really taken on a life of its own,” O’Rourke said. “People write back and tell me that they’re deeply grateful to have been introduced to this elite group of people, and they look forward to returning next year.”