PROFILE: Business acumen drives Allen on her road to Dell

Though she entered the business world to become a financial journalist, Elizabeth Allen uncovered the ability to develop relationships that has led her to a top PR post at Dell.

Though she entered the business world to become a financial journalist, Elizabeth Allen uncovered the ability to develop relationships that has led her to a top PR post at Dell.

One might be tempted to describe Elizabeth Allen as all business. In the mid-1970s, when everyone else in J-school wanted to expose government corruption, the student who would become Dell Computer's corporate communications VP saw opportunity on a road then less-traveled - business journalism. A high-school yearbook class sparked Allen's interest in communications. It was the only elective available at her small-town Ohio school, considering her mother's moral opposition to home economics. "My mother went to the school board and said no daughter of hers would take home ec.," Allen says. "A colleague of mine often reminds me that I still can't cook." The Medill School of Journalism planted in Allen's mind a vision of what a great journalist should be, but she did not see herself in that picture. "I didn't want to be an investigative journalist," she recalls. "I thought I would be a good financial journalist, and that's why I went to business school. There weren't very many journalists around who understood business." Thinking a good business reporter should have some business experience under her belt, Allen went to work in Citigroup's financial analysis department and never looked back. She moved up to marcomm VP for Citicorp. She also took high-level jobs with defense contractors Loral and Raytheon, then with Staples, before Dell beckoned her to Texas in 2000. Her most rewarding professional experience came at Raytheon, Allen says, where her team launched a successful campaign to change the system by which Massachusetts taxed manufacturers. The old law discouraged industrial employment by basing tax rates on head count. "I really believe in my heart that what we did was a public service," she says, while being careful to add, "You wouldn't get me near the political arena again for anything." Dell's reputation for doing the right thing attracted her to the Austin computer maker. "I feel that people personally own what they do," she says. "If you lie to or mislead a reporter, it's your personal reputation, in addition to the company's reputation, that is at stake." Also, Dell's staff was exponentially larger and more sophisticated than any she'd ever led, although budget cuts required an employee reduction of about 30% after she arrived. And Allen quickly joined her CEO's fan club. "Michael Dell's public persona is not only true, but the real thing is better," she proclaims. Allen says she'd never worked for a company that was both well run and growing, but one of her early challenges involved fostering self-examination at Dell. Although still relatively young, Dell had grown from being a scrappy underdog to a market leader, and public discourse needed to reflect it. Dell also switched PR firms within a year of Allen's arrival, with GCI Group replacing Fleishman-Hillard. She and account leader Jeff Hunt, CEO of GCI Read Poland in Austin, share a close professional relationship, and have just begun teaching a PR class together at the University of Texas. GCI's relationship has grown to span most of the globe, with Ogilvy helping out in Europe and Asia. "I think the way she set up her relationship with their PR firm is indicative of the person she is," says Paul Argenti, Allen's long-time colleague and a professor of management and corporate communications at Dartmouth's Tuck Business School. "Unlike many relationships, it was a real collaboration." Dell personnel interviewed all GCI account team members. "We developed key evaluation criteria at the front end of the relationship," Hunt says. Each quarter, Dell grades GCI on things like creativity and writing, and GCI grades Dell on access and feedback. Allen also has focused on beefing up Dell's international PR presence by strengthening its own staff abroad, and replacing a network of European agencies with the GCI/Ogilvy alliance. "There is no such thing as local news," Allen says. "If we manage it on strict, geographic boundaries, we are kidding ourselves." Product launches seem perpetual at Dell, especially as the company breaks out of its traditional computer market and produces everything from printers to complex data-storage systems. Trading on the Dell name makes getting ink for consumer products easy, but greater challenges face the team in the b-to-b sector, which the company now courts more heavily. The recent release of Dell's new Axim handheld unit illustrates a common thread through Dell's PR - a desire to keep tight control over information. "Chaos is not a good communications strategy," Allen advises. As it does with most product introductions, Dell provided information about Axim under embargo to long-lead publications, but details leaked to a website two weeks early, so Dell lifted the restrictions. Although Allen described the premature Axim launch as Dell's most successful ever, she says the company will stick to its embargo policy in the future. Well-run companies keep a tight reign on information so they can honor commitments and break important news to employees first, Allen says. "You really have to be a business person first and a communicator second," she maintains. "If you don't understand the business, you can't make a direct link between business goals and what you're doing. Then you're just a fluffy publicist." ----- Elizabeth Allen 2000 Joins Dell Computer as corporate comms VP 1998 Joins Staples as corporate comms VP 1993 Joins Raytheon as corporate comms VP 1988 Joins defense contractor Loral as comms director and moves up to VP 1977-1988 Begins her career in Citigroup's financial analysis department, moves up through the IR ranks to become marketing comms VP for Citicorp 1975 Earns bachelor's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and two years later an MBA from Indiana University

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