World-class communications

Avnet's worldwide expansion has led to the evolution of a many-tentacled global PR function.

Avnet's worldwide expansion has led to the evolution of a many-tentacled global PR function.

Avnet has been around for more than 80 years, and public for almost 50. But its business is all about staying current. As one of the world's largest distributors of electronic components and computer equipment, the Fortune 500 company with more than $14 billion in annual revenues must keep up with the latest technology on the market, while also staying abreast of business trends in 70 different countries served by 11,000 employees. To say that communications are important to its mission would be quite the understatement.

Avnet's commitment to clear and active communications starts at the top. Roy Vallee, who has been the company's CEO for nearly a decade, explains that because its growth into a global presence was driven mainly by acquisitions, a major communications challenge has been to streamline the function across many platforms.

"Consistent, clear, effective communication is our most powerful tool inside the company to effect change," Vallee says. "In the '90s... it struck me that it's no longer effective or appropriate to have a communications strategy for the employees, another one for the shareholders, and another one for the trading partners, because everyone has access to all the same information. So what we need is a unified, coordinated, cohesive strategy that gets communicated to all our constituents."

To do that, Avnet decided to centralize its communication function. In 1998, it brought in Al Maag to fill the newly created role of chief communications officer, with a mandate to install a world-class structure. The company now organizes its communications in
a way that cleaves closely to the major sections of its business at large. It has a corporate communications group and two marketing communications teams that support its electronic and computer-components businesses.

In his corporate post, Maag oversees global PR, IR, community relations, and both internal and corporate communications.

Comms flexibility

Although Avnet is one of the largest companies in its industry, it is not inflexible. Headquarters gives a certain amount of independence to communications teams in other countries and verticals, a structure based on the theory that centralization is only good for certain things. "We set the bar for the brand and general activities as to how we'd like things done," says Maag. "We expose, but do not impose."

Indeed, he notes that although Avnet recently reorganized so that all of its major groups - finance, logistics, HR, and others - report centrally, communications has remained the only group that does not impose that strict conformity to a command structure on its
various international leaders.

"We must be aligned with the leader of that country or region," Maag says. "Because of that, we should not be reporting to a centralized group. We've been acting that way, and working together, for about eight years... How can I, in Phoenix, know the culture and the way people buy products in Hungary or Taiwan? I don't know. So why would I impose on people how we should do things?"

So while some important issues, such as branding, are determined by Maag's office, he says, "If someone wants to do something a little bit different in their region or country, God bless 'em."

Sean Fanning, SVP of marketing communications, runs Avnet's worldwide electronics marketing. He is responsible for not only global marketing communications for the electronics business, but also oversees an integrated marketing team in corporate headquarters that "serves as the extended marketing services organization" for the Americas region, managing all integrated communications for the region. He says that independence does not mean that the business units lack accountability - their communications are driven by Avnet's regional strategy, which is itself linked to the global strategy.

"When you think of how we're structured, it's fairly forward-looking," he explains. "At an operating-group level, we're sitting in the business and we're close to the business. I think that's part of the secret sauce. It's not just communications off as an island when you get into the operating groups. It's marketing and communications. It's branding, it's event management, it's the Web."

Culture of sharing

Each level of Avnet's communications in its various groups is simultaneously linked to top-level and regional leaders like Maag via regular meetings and calls. As such, each level is able to translate those shared best practices into plans for their own region and business.

Georg Steinberger, VP of communications for Avnet's electronics marketing, EMEA, points out that the company's share-and-share-alike philosophy means that initiatives that originate anywhere can eventually spread globally.

"One good example where we cooperated is the topic of environmental regulations," he adds. "[It] started in Europe, so we developed a plan, eventually had all the other regions tie into that and share the information with the regions. We share really good ideas around the world."

Avnet's business groups deal mostly with the trade media that cover its very particular industry. But more general media relations are the purview of Michelle Gorel, the company's VP of PR. In that corporate-level position, she also keeps an eye on local media coverage in the home market of Phoenix, as well as handling executive communications duties.

"There are PR teams in each of the operating groups and in each region" that are responsible for media duties in their specific businesses and locations, Gorel says. But her own job keeps her busy with companywide outreach to the press, announcements about M&As, and her advisory duties to the company's COO.

"I [am] often a sounding board for him," she explains. "We will share ideas on what's the best way to communicate, and then I'll actually help him execute."

Of course, Avnet's roughly 70-person communications team can't do it all alone. The company has been working with Brodeur for the past seven years to handle all of its global PR needs - international project work, global communications measurement, and support for any and all of its corporate or operating groups.

Sonia Bovio, a VP at Brodeur's Phoenix office who manages the Avnet business, says her work changes with the company's needs, but she believes that its fundamental commitment to communications will continue in many guises.

"The amount of effort and commitment that Avnet has made to media training on an international scale is really impressive," she says. "They are putting the time, energy, and dollars behind getting out there in the field."

Communication vehicles

Avnet has multiple corporate communications vehicles to reach its employees across the globe. What follows is a list of vehicles, and their frequency.

  • Daily executive briefing e-mails of industry news
  • Weekly employee e-mail newsletter with corporate news and events
  • Bi-weekly e-mails with links to Avnet media coverage and press releases, which is also shared with investors and business partners
  • Bi-monthly print magazines that focus on employee and cultural activities
  • Quarterly video segments that focus on employees in different worldwide locations
  • Quarterly executive communications via e-mail and video on earnings results
  • Annual senior leadership conference for approximately 200 employees
  • Annual visits from senior executives to every Avnet office with more than 100 employees

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