Jeff DeMarrais: Shattering the barriers

The chief comms officer at London 2012 sponsor GE Healthcare wants to leave his mark on the industry. Elizabeth Pears reports.

Jeff DeMarrais: 'At GE, we have a culture where comms is allowed a seat at the table. You can't wait for crumbs, you have to ask how that loaf of bread was made'
Jeff DeMarrais: 'At GE, we have a culture where comms is allowed a seat at the table. You can't wait for crumbs, you have to ask how that loaf of bread was made'

While some Olympics sponsors are working overtime to convince any doubters they share the Games' healthy ethos, Jeff DeMarrais has no such problems. The chief comms officer at GE Healthcare, a UK-based arm of major Olympics sponsor General Electric, heads into the summer with a clear and compelling narrative to tell.

DeMarrais explains with enthusiasm: 'When you're talking sport and thinking about health, it is a nice crossover for us. There's a great story to tell. Some of the technology GE has developed is not only helping athletes at the Games but will be a legacy for the local community.'

The group's donations include £4.8m of technology for a new antenatal clinic at Homerton Hospital in Hackney, east London, and highly advanced equipment for a polyclinic inside the Olympic Village.

DeMarrais, 41, has been at GE for more than a decade, but only relocated to the UK from the US two years ago with his wife and two children for his current role at GE Healthcare - GE's only global HQ in the UK and, as such, a huge focus of the group's Olympics activity.

With 46,000 staff serving healthcare professionals and their patients in more than 100 countries, it is a role that DeMarrais relishes.

In 2011, under his leadership, the comms team launched the Get Fit Twitter campaign to encourage people to talk about lifestyle changes that could help prevent cancer, ahead of GE Healthcare's announcement that it was committing $1bn (£647m) to fighting the disease. It was a massive coup; increasing traffic to the website by 70 times the normal amount.

DeMarrais explains: 'The key part was starting a conversation that people could get involved in. When you talk products, you face a lot of regulations, but disease and wellbeing is something we are all interested in.'

Raising the level of awareness of what the firm does for society, he explains, has become an overriding focus for him and his global team of 80 comms professionals.

'We're looking beyond the traditional way of telling the story and leveraging social media, as well as engaging employees in a meaningful way to make sure they have the ability to be advocates and ambassadors for our brand,' he adds.

'Out technologies can help drive cures. Health is very personal - it goes right down to the patient level, so we have a responsibility to make sure they understand what we do.'

Getting into PR in the first place was a no-brainer for DeMarrais - he was raised on it. His father had a 20-year career in sports PR at Columbia University, which left a lasting impression on his son.

After studying History and Spanish, which he speaks fluently, at Colgate University, he began an internship at American television station NBC - a GE asset - helping at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

DeMarrais then took a role with computer book publishers John Wiley & Sons in 1993, handling PR for some of the biggest selling books on the internet. He soon caught the technology bug. 'I never thought of myself as a technology guy, but I've always latched on to the stuff that was out there,' the avid Twitter user says.

Very quickly, DeMarrais realised how technology could create opportunities for his industry.

Using an HTML handbook as a guide, DeMarrais built an online press room from scratch. He then sent a cheeky email to Beth Comstock - then head of comms for NBC - warning her that if she did not have one, she would be missing out.

The ploy worked and, by 1997, DeMarrais was building NBC's first press room. When Comstock was promoted to head of comms for GE, she invited him to join her in the corporate team.

DeMarrais has held key comms positions across GE's Transport and Plastics divisions, up to executive director of global comms at GE Technology and Infrastructure.

Gary Sheffer, vice-president, comms and public affairs at GE Corporate, says: 'Jeff is versatile. He can do media relations, crisis, social media, employee engagement and strategic planning.'

He may be safely ensconced in GE, but DeMarrais is never one to back down from a challenge. 'At GE, we have a culture where comms is allowed a seat at the table,' he explains. 'You can't wait for crumbs, you have to ask how that loaf of bread was made.'

He confesses to once challenging a business colleague who was going to do something without considering the ramifications from a PR perspective.

DeMarrais says: 'I said, "you can't do that - and here are three reasons why". He listened and it worked out fine. You must have the ability to pick up the phone and defend the case.'

That relationship, he says with genuine emphasis, must work both ways. He adds: 'I would be disappointed if my team didn't challenge me. I value their advice and local knowledge. If you are sitting in western Europe and think you can understand the media in Singapore, then you're a fool.'

As for the future, DeMarrais hopes to one day leave a lasting mark on the industry.

He adds: 'I would love to shatter the barriers and shift the culture of a firm to a place where the bosses understand employees can be active ambassadors. The 1950s memo from the top does not work any more. It's about two-way conversations. That would be a meaningful contribution for me.'

With DeMarrais on the case, expect that shift shortly.

To see the PRWeek Top 25 Healthcare Consultancies click here

CV
2010 Chief comms officer, GE Healthcare
2009 Executive director of global comms, GE Technology Infrastructure
2007 Director of media strategy and comms chief, GE Corporate
2005 Global comms manager, GE Plastics
2003 Director of comms, GE Infrastructure
2001 Comms and PR manager, GE Transportation
1999 Digital publicity manager, GE Corporate
1997 Senior publicity manager, NBC
1993 New media PR, John Wiley & Sons

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

When I joined GE Transportation. It was my first chance to lead a team.

Have you had a notable mentor?

My dad, partly because he grew up in PR and comms. We have very healthy debates about the industry. A lot of my mentoring comes from my colleagues - a lot of my good ideas come from someone else. There's a stealing with pride culture at GE. If someone in-house does something great, it makes sense to copy it and add your own tweak.

What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?

Be aggressive in learning new technology and show you can create content that is relevant. Be curious and never think that what you are doing today is the way it will be done tomorrow.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Excellent writers. Understanding the impact of social media and preferably be an active user - it is part of the job now.

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