Analysis: Client profile - PR troops hurl Cisco into tech mainstream/If hi-tech companies are today’s media darlings, Cisco Systems is the Shirley Temple of the bunch. The networking giant can seemingly do no wrong, but its success goes far beyond

Nothing better illustrates Cisco’s transformation from obscure networking technology manufacturer to household name than an incident last fall at a press conference for NetAid.

Nothing better illustrates Cisco’s transformation from obscure networking technology manufacturer to household name than an incident last fall at a press conference for NetAid.

Nothing better illustrates Cisco’s transformation from obscure

networking technology manufacturer to household name than an incident

last fall at a press conference for NetAid.



Cisco president and CEO John Chambers was on stage there alongside

United Nations dignitaries and celebrities to promote the

Cisco-sponsored web site and rock concerts held to raise awareness of

world poverty.



’Amid the immediate rush for the stage, just as Chambers was finishing

up another interview, this reporter tried to run up to him,’ recalls

Doug Wills, head of Cisco’s corporate PR team, who threw up an arm to

hold the scribe back from his boss. ’He obviously thought I was an

entertainment flack and said to me, ’You don’t understand. This guy is

the Sean Puffy Combs of the Internet.’’



And so he is. If every dog has his day, today belongs to Chambers. In

the past year alone, he has starred in a CNNfn profile and landed on

Business Week’s list of the top 25 managers of 1999.



Meanwhile, peppered by daily updates on its rising stock price and

climbing sales, Cisco has gone from an obscure networking company to a

brand synonymous with the Silicon Valley boom. But if you are tempted to

chalk all the glowingly positive coverage up to stellar financial

performance, think again. To be sure, with sales up 44% and share price

up 130% in 1999, Cisco is the fastest growing corporation in history and

the third most valuable company in the world, behind Microsoft and GE.

However, the work of Wills’ well-oiled corporate PR machine can

certainly be credited with stoking the media firestorm.



Up until about two years ago, Cisco had maintained a low profile,

concentrating on product PR in the tech trades and racking up profits

behind the scenes.



But when director of executive communications and corporate PR Lorene

Arey hired Wills in September 1997 as group manager for corporate PR,

that strategy shifted 180 degrees. A former DC lobbyist and political

reporter who had helped launch Windows 95 at Waggener-Edstrom, Wills

immediately sought to position Cisco for mainstream media coverage.



’A few years ago, our biggest challenge was establishing relevance,’ he

explains. ’We saw a real opportunity to position ourselves as an

Internet leader and a driver of the new Internet economy.’





Celebrity CEO



Part of that strategy required elevating Chambers into celebrity-CEO

status, ’making him the Jack Welch of the Internet,’ as Wills puts

it.



A humble Southerner at heart, Chambers is said to have resisted at

first.



That is, until presented with the alternative of spending hundreds of

millions more on advertising to out-brand Cisco’s competitors.



In order to work more closely with Chambers and better engineer this

mainstream media push, Wills and Arey moved corporate PR out of

marketing and into the office of the president in June 1998. The

restructuring was more than symbolic - it actually helped establish PR

as a part of the company’s strategic operations and made Wills’ team

integral management players. In fact, the PR troops actually set up camp

in cubicles surrounding Chambers’ unassuming office.



And as Cisco charged ahead with an acquisition binge, gobbling up more

than 27 companies in the past 18 months, ’PR has been brought in on

every deal right from the very start,’ says corporate PR manager Abby

Smith.



Smith is just one of the eclectic 10-member ’dream team’ Wills has

assembled since the restructuring. ’We made some very nontraditional

hires here and now have a huge mix of people with different

backgrounds,’ he says.



Team members include the spokesman for the Democratic National Committee

and two ex-MSNBC producers.



Armed with strong resources in-house, Cisco pulled the plug on long-time

agency of record Cunningham Communication (though the firm still works

on many projects with the marketing department) and parceled out

specific assignments to several smaller firms specializing in niche

areas.



Ultimately, the new arrangement gave Cisco more direct control over its

image on a daily basis. ’We are able to execute better and faster,’

Wills explains. ’When a reporter calls, and you are sitting 20 feet away

from the CEO’s office, that’s when you see the advantage of having your

corporate PR in-house. It removes another layer.’



Control is something that reporters on the Cisco beat often grumble

about.



Word on the street is that Wills and company are often a

detail-obsessed, demanding and definitely aggressive bunch. ’You can

never do an end run on them,’ comments one journalist. ’They definitely

know what they are doing; even when you think they have let their guard

down and are letting something slip out, later you find out it was

really nothing,’ says another writer.



But at the same time, the company’s quick response, accessibility and

lack of hierarchy score points with the same reporters. Most place Cisco

in the same league as Intel - and far above universally disdained Apple

- for its ’sophisticated, organized approach to PR.’



In fact, a tour of Cisco’s corporate web site supports that

assessment.



Compared to competitors such as Lucent or 3Com, which supply reporters

with only a blind e-mail link, the pressroom area of Cisco’s site

provides a clear roadmap for the ’who, what and where’ for any type of

news query.





Challenges still ahead



But members of the corporate team insist there are plenty of hills still

to be scaled. In addition to maintaining the ground they have

established, they will aim more aggressively this year for depiction as

an innovator, rather than just a champion in the acquisitions race. As

they move into the home products market, they also hope to boost Cisco’s

image as a consumer company. They are looking to raise the company’s

profile internationally as well. ’We have made great strides in Asia,

but we still face challenges in Europe and Latin America,’ admits

Wills.



And nobody at Cisco is taking anything for granted. ’Remember, Microsoft

used to only get great press, too,’ Wills cautions. And as the company

continues on its acquisition charge, Cisco becomes increasingly

vulnerable to scrutiny. Should a merger go awry, negative coverage could

throw the team its first crisis communications challenge.



Wills says the crew is up for the challenge: ’We are a risk-taking

company. We are not for those people who like to score five out of five,

but for those who aim for eight out of 10.’





CISCO SYSTEMS



Internal PR staff:



Lorene Arey, director, executive communications & corporate PR: oversees

total staff of 13; Doug Wills, group manager, corporate PR: oversees 10

corporate PR managers External agencies



Barokas Public Relations (Seattle); Greer Margolis Mitchell Burns &

Associates (Washington, DC); Quinn Gillespie (Washington, DC); Klopak

Schecter & Leonard (Washington, DC); Cunningham Communication (Palo

Alto, CA) Financials*



1999 sales: dollars 12.154m



1999 net income: dollars 2.096m



*Source: Hoovers Online.



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