As 2015 becomes 2016, it is striking how many issues that were once dismissed as “just a public relations issue” or “nice to haves,” underfunded and relegated to departments deemed less influential, are now high priorities in the C-suite. (Photo credit: Doug Mills)

What’s going on? Has the Star Wars “Force” awakened the C-suite?

• One of the crucial lessons from the epic 2008-2009 financial crisis is the need for new thinking at the table. The International Monetary Fund blamed “groupthink in part for the crisis, which emphasized the magnitude of the importance of diversity of all kinds at the decision making table, including those with contrarian or unpopular views. Today about 60 percent of the Fortune 500 have diversity programs and/or officers, CEOs talk about it at mainstream conferences, and achieving diversity goals is being integrated into performance review and compensation systems. The Federal Reserve’s finally raising interest rates this week for the first time since the crisis seems to signal that we’ve emerged from this crisis, hopefully wiser.

• Punctuated by his recent visit to the United States and his audacious, respectfully-confrontational speech to the U.S. Congress and his impassioned and eloquent environmental encyclical Laudato Sí, the non-traditional Pope Francis elevated care for our fellow humans and the planet to the level of moral responsibility. Arguably one of the most authoritative sources on “moral responsibility,” Pope Francis implored us to act, and to act now, and demonstrated such in his own choices with his now-famous Fiat in lieu of a fancy gas-guzzler and in spending much of his time with the powerless, in lieu of the powerful. CEO’s are committing more employee time and more resources to volunteerism, non-profits, and communities, not merely dismissing it as a “nice thing to do” or “good for our image.”

• Sustainability and climate risk, once relegated to the public relations department, are now integrated into C-suite-level decision making and budgets, recognized for their bottom line impact. This is likely the result of the cumulative impact of the record-breaking string of extreme weather events, including devastating hurricanes and droughts, that literally shook us and hit our pocket books and livelihoods, forcing us to acknowledge how much we depend on Mother Nature. This month, nearly 200 countries – pressured by hundreds of companies that create jobs and drive their economies, and that represent millions of voters worldwide – finally awoke to their responsibilities and agreed to a comprehensive plan to reduce carbon emissions with the historic COP21 agreement.

• The transparency that inherently accompanies ubiquitous video – everyone has a camera – forced us to take responsibility for our actions on an entirely new level. We are talking about racism and police behavior more openly, for example, with officers being investigated, prosecuted and retrained like never before, because of revealing videos that demonstrated that cops are wrong sometimes. Victims of all ethnicities are being taken seriously now, exemplified by the conviction of the white Oklahoma cop on 18 counts of sexual assault and rape against black women this month. And, an AT&T top executive was fired for sending racist texts earlier this year too, and faces a $100m employee discrimination suit.

• The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide forces even the religious zealots who disagree to realize that we all have human rights – and encourages us to respect those who look and think different from us. Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner’s high-profile and public transformation from a man to a woman in 2015 made (most of) us look with greater compassion at those who have been discriminated against for their sexual orientation, too. This kind of discrimination is no longer being cavalierly swept under the rug.

Cyber security has gone mainstream now, too, due to the combination of ISIS’s brutality (fueled in part by leveraging cyber tools) and the all-too-common hacking of supposedly high-security organizations, from the federal government to major corporations such as Target and Sony Pictures.

These are issues that used to be relegated to the lower-prestige, less funded human resources, communications, “community service,” or IT departments and considered unworthy of senior management’s time and resources.

Not anymore.

As we close 2015 and begin 2016, executives and boards at the Fortune 500 are holding their teams accountable for employee diversity and engagement, climate risk, cyber security and building deep partnerships with the community, and investors are including them in their investment criteria.

Communications itself has been elevated to the C-suite, with the realization that what is said, by whom, how, where, when and to whom can directly and severely impact your bottom line and quickly.

This all reflects a seismic shift in the cultural, economic and political earth as we flip the calendar page from 2015 to 2016. “The Force Awakens” indeed.

What’s next?

Tell me what shifts you see @joanmichelson or on Facebook or email me at info@greenconnectionsradio.com.

This post first appeared in the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joan-michelson/the-force-awakens-in-the-_b_8860948.html