More fascinating than HBO’s hit Succession, is the tortured, yet expert depiction of the fictional Waystar Royco Head of Communications Karolina Novotney. This blog post isn’t entirely a love letter to the artfulness of Succession (maybe just a little bit). It is a rundown of some of this season’s most noteworthy moments, and why they showed us that while comms may not always make the end all, be all decision, it really can drive a business.
Here are three moments that Karolina depicted the evolution of comms in real-time. Spoilers ahead.
(Pre-)Planning in Crisis
Perhaps the biggest criticism of Karolina from the comms community in this final season was her proposal to create a plan while the private flight crew completed chest compressions on the Logan Roy. It was so comically disgusting and yet eerily familiar.
I saw countless LinkedIn posts reacting to the role of comms and PR in a death. The shock that Karolina would not already have a plan when the then CEO Logan Roy was battling health scares for years. Here’s the thing–no one (let alone a comms pro) navigating the dark waters of Waystar Royco would ever propose creating a plan unless they already had one in mind.
In fact, I would venture to say that every comms head for a Fortune 500 company has a communications plan already mapped out should an executive pass away unexpectedly. It’s likely in the same folder and/or document as the crisis response plan for a natural disaster taking out a data center, an act of violence near an office, or (dare I say) a pandemic. It is the job.
A Scope Defined Only by Risk
Karolina’s proactive pursuit of next steps is the company’s north star. While everyone contemplates grief and their own place in Waystar’s future (not necessarily in that order), it’s the comms leader’s job to determine a notification tree and a path of least disruption.
Family, board, leadership, employees, general public, the scope of communications is not just media relations anymore. It’s everything, internal and external, that could shape the brand and any associated risk.
In decades prior, internal communications typically rolled up into a Human Resources leader. External communications rolled up elsewhere (sometimes marketing, sometimes to leadership, sometimes somewhere else entirely). Karolina’s role in Succession reveals the extreme neutrality demanded by the role and the reach of her ever-evolving purview defined only by whatever is on fire at any given moment. It is the job.
Shaping a Narrative Designed to Build Trust
Karolina’s second hand Hugo joins her in proposing a plan to help stocks rebound after Logan’s death. It involves sharing that Logan’s deteriorating health resulted in other leaders (and family members) stepping in to help run the ship leading up to his death. It’s a narrative designed to build trust with shareholders. It (expectedly so) divides the family and leadership team. It taints the legacy of Logan perhaps too directly for some and prompts an unraveling of loyalties for others.
Mid-acquisition negotiations, Karolina’s loyalty sits squarely with the brand and its stakeholders. Building trust in the company’s future is the only goal that matters. The job of comms is to exude empathy and understand the emotions present but not let any of them impact the bottom line. It’s when Kendall goes rogue at the Investor Day and the numbers change that she knows a line is crossed…and is probably already scenario planning to figure out a plan for the fallout.
Whether Waystar’s succeeding nepo-CEO Kendall approved it or not, I have a feeling Karolina would have proceeded with her plans to shape a narrative that ensured trust in Kendall for the good of the brand. It is the job.
An Uncertain Future
The job of comms is to propose solutions and make decisions whether you’re in crisis or not. All while anticipating risk and trying not to introduce any of your own. Karolina’s rise to dominance in the final season of Succession mirrors the rise of comms to the c-suite. Her role at Waystar and within the Roy family evolved from nervous publicist (mostly seen flagging negative coverage) to what Rolling Stone dubbed as the show’s MVP in its final season.
Her ability to execute in the ever changing environments of corporate chaos is unparalleled. She is one of the only characters indifferent about the “kill list” and yet one of the few that isn’t on it. To me, that’s no coincidence. Where does she go from here? Anywhere. It is the job.
…but we’ll see where this season takes us. Watch this space.