Beth Comstock was named a vice chair of GE* yesterday, responsible for Business Innovation. She will also continue to oversee GE Lighting, GE Ventures and Licensing, corporate marketing, sales and communications. As GE chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt said of Comstock, “She has a proven reputation inside and outside of GE for transforming the enterprise and being a catalyst for digital innovation and growth.”
Comstock is one of us, having run corporate communications, then moving to chief marketing officer for the company, with a stint as president of NBC Universal. She has done more than any CMO to bring together communications and marketing. Take a look at the GE web site for a view into the future, where every company is a media company. Whether it is GE Reports or the Thomas Edison blog or the active presence on Instagram and Pinterest (Where else can you see such beautifully decorated windmills?), you can see that Comstock goes where the audience wants to be and offers a chance for co-creation. She is relentless in her search for the new and different, trying small agencies, visiting Silicon Valley start-ups, learning constantly. She brought forward Ecomagination as a means of expressing GE’s premium eco-friendly product innovation with advertising and promotion, using PR as the foundation of this now decade-old sub-brand that now accounts for 25 percent of GE’s total sales.
It is rare to see a person with Comstock’s background promoted consistently to the top level of one of the world’s great corporations. I can think of three who made it to CEO, John Fallon of Pearson and Dave D’Alessandro of John Hancock, who began his career at Edelman New York as an account executive and Richard Plepler, who spent two years at Edelman, now president of Time Warner subsidiary HBO. He is a genius in programming and in sensing the consumer trends ahead of his competitors. His HBO Now product allows subscribers access to content when and where they want it, while the recent deal with Sesame Street broadens the audience.
In the next five years, there will be many more PR people who will ascend to top management; here are a few reasons:
Business is increasingly dependent on social channels for customer service, new product introductions and employee connection.
The power of earned media is going to be enhanced even more by ad blockers being touted by Google and Apple.
With the loss of trust in major institutions, there is dispersion of authority to friends and family, a peer-to-peer model best understood by PR executives.
There is a new expectation of business to lead, to fill the void left by government that is stymied by politics, facing funding gaps and lacking credibility due to scandal. It is for those with PR backgrounds to imagine recruiting of talent from the ranks of those returning from military service (GE did this), to understanding the potential for one brand to lead in taking tobacco off of the retail shelves (CVS*) or to partner with NGOs to reconstruct the supply chain with sustainability and humane labor practices as priority (Walmart).
The innovative companies based on principles of the sharing economy will be particularly subject to criticism based on fears of employment (taxi drivers in France striking against Uber) or sanctity of personal data. Watch for the emergence of a PR person as CEO in this category.
Smart companies should look at young communications executives as possible candidates for the fast track to senior management. And those of you going back to college this week should consider taking courses in computer programming, foreign languages and business management/accounting so that you are ready for this possibility. Beth Comstock has shown that the dream can come true. Bravo to you, Beth.
This article originally appeared on 6A.M., Richard Edelman’s blog on trends in communications, issues, lessons and insights.