We know nothing about the personal life of Karolina Novotney, the unflappable chief communications officer of the fictional Waystar Royco Co. of Succession fame. Karolina doesn’t seem to have a significant other. Nor do we see evidence of a family or a life beyond the company. She’s a corporate PR archetype.
Karolina is always putting out fires. When founder Logan Roy suffers his first health crisis in Succession‘s initial episode, she is ready with a “holding statement” to keep the press at bay until a replacement is named. It’s enough to put you in mind of some of the real-life CCOs who rose to the top, like the late Katie Cotton. Cotton, who served as PR chief at Apple for over 20 years, was accused of withholding information about Steve Jobs’ health to protect Apple’s image. Then there’s the controversial Irena Briganti, who as Fox News’ SVP of Corporate Communications, may be a model who’s closer to home. Former Fox network star Megyn Kelly has warned the recently departed Tucker Carlson that Fox’s PR department is running “an orchestrated hit job” on him. She called Briganti “an angry, bitter, internal PR hack” with a “vendetta.” Ouch. It all got me thinking about the influence of corporate communicators and the impact a strong executive can have on a brand.
As with other, real-life CCOs of legend, Karolina’s a loyalist who bleeds Waystar Royco. At the end of season two, when Kendall Roy suddenly attacks his father at a press briefing in a play to oust him, Karolina doesn’t need to think very long about whose side she’ll take. As they are driven back to headquarters she reminds Kendall that he’s violating his fiduciary duty and should resign if he intends to take on the company. When Kendall insists he will remain a senior executive and asks if she’ll join him, she’s out, literally. She opens the car door and proceeds to the office on foot.
Later, when the worst happens and Logan Roy collapses on a private plane on a flight to Europe, Karolina calmly begins making a list of people to contact. You can see the wheels in her head turning.
So how much does Succession get right about corporate PR?
The day-to-day PR role
To the extent a TV series can show the everyday contribution of a senior comms executive, the optics are right. Karolina is part of the Roy family inner circle, both professionally and socially. She’s a key player in any high-stakes situation. She is composed, organized, and prepared at all times. In executive meetings she weighs in with a point of view or recommendation but is never heavy-handed (unlike her more junior associate Hugo). She knows when to speak and when to stay silent. She reads the room. Karolina is tough with the press but rarely reluctant to engage and never caught by surprise — except when Kendall turns on his father publicly in season two. That’s the only moment when we see her lose her cool.
Crisis chops are what separates those at the top of their game from the pack. On Succession, this one is a mixed bag. Season one opens with Logan’s 80th birthday party, and at the end of the episode, he suffers a stroke. Clearly any public company of Waystar Royco’s size with an octogenarian CEO would have an interim plan, at the very least, in the event of the CEO’s incapacity. Yet, the show is called Succession for a reason. In a founder-dominated corporation like the fictional Waystar Royco, maybe that’s not so surprising. (Shades of Sumner Redstone.) When Logan dies unexpectedly in season four, there’s no predesignated CEO, but there’s certainly a short list, and the decision is made rather swiftly. It’s not clear that Karolina is following any crisis plan beyond her own instincts, but she’s the one who springs into action on the executive plane, making her list and thinking through the external relations implications of Logan’s passing. So, give Succession a C+ on verisimilitude here.
According to a Korn Ferry Institute survey of chief communications officers, some 83 percent of C- level communicators identified reputational threats/risks as the most critical challenge they face. Here, again, art mirrors life. Managing Waystar Royco’s reputational fires seems to take up most of Karolina’s time. We see her move seamlessly from dealing with whistleblower leaks about cruise division scandals, to the ultimate black swan event — Logan’s sudden death. But it’s her actions after his passing that set her apart. As the family reels and the stock collapses, she and Hugo quietly approach Kendall with a strategy to manage the transition. They propose to seed unattributed (and untrue) stories that Logan’s health and mental acuity were faltering badly in the months before his death, and that his sons had already stepped in to steady the course. Ethical? Absolutely not. But their goal is to protect the company and bolster the reputation of the Roy family members suddenly in charge, even as they tarnish the founder’s legacy.
It’s not a scene that instills professional pride, but, then, nothing about Succession does. Yet overall, it’s a stark, if dramatically heightened, glimpse of the skills and compromises communicators face in the real world.