Newsmaker: Doug Michelman, Visa

After helping steer Visa through significant change, the firm's head of corporate relations is evolving the brand by creating a fresh perspective through a unique lens.

After helping steer Visa through significant change, the firm's head of corporate relations is evolving the brand by creating  a fresh perspective through a unique lens. 


The Visa name has been around for more than 50 years, but in many ways, Visa Inc. is only five years old, as a result of the merger of the retail electronic payments network's US, Canada, and International arms in October 2007. It spawned the largest IPO in US history in March 2008, raising $17.9 billion.

During the transition, half of the senior management team was new, the company brought in a new CEO, president, CFO, CMO, head of HR, and chief risk officer over the course of four months.

Among the few people who remained in leadership roles was Doug Michelman, who served as EVP of corporate relations at Visa USA since January 2003. He was promoted to global head of corporate relations at Visa following the merger.

Michelman, who is responsible for corporate relations activities including global media and analyst relations, issues and crisis management, communications programs, digital communications strategies, and much more, has been a major player in helping the brand evolve its new identity. He does not oversee Visa Europe, which decided to remain a separate business and the exclusive European licensee of Visa's trademarks and tech- nology facilitating global payments.

"When we went public and we were no longer owned by the banks, it was more important than ever to define ourselves and build our reputation as an independent shareholder-owned company," Michelman says.

One of his biggest initiatives is the Curr-ency of Progress reputation campaign, which uses content, such as videos and blogs produced in-house, to define what Visa is and how it adds value to society. The program launched in 2009 and has recently focused on communicating "in local languages with local stories and local content," he adds.

In the last 12 months, the brand has produced content for Japan, Brazil, China, Russia, and Canada. Michelman says one of the biggest changes has been the switch from long-form videos of three to five minutes to more social media-friendly one-minute videos or "perspectives."

"If you draw someone's attention with a tweet, Facebook post, or blog, they are likely to click it on their phone. They don't have as much patience for a long video," he adds.

In addition to sharing the videos and stories on social media and with clients, they are used internally to motivate staff and show them examples of how their work is improving lives around the world.

Part of the solution
Visa's CEO Joseph Saunders says that one of Michelman's best qualities is his ability to "tell the story of why Visa is part of the solution in making life better for consumers, merchants, and governments."

"Doug has demonstrated he can look ahead and anticipate, and in many instances help us get ahead of issues that could impact our growth and reputation," Saunders adds. Growth at the payment powerhouse adds up to 2 billion Visa cards swiping their way to $6.3 trillion in payments for the past 12 months, ending June 30, 2012 (excluding Europe).

Saunders notes that Michelman has helped enhance Visa's image and grow business in new and emerging markets by pushing for the company to focus on financial inclusion and financial literacy.

Fundamental product PR, or "educating people about the benefits of using a credit or debit card," is a big part of Visa's financial inclusion efforts in other countries, such as Nigeria, where 70% of people don't have a bank account, Michelman explains.

2003-present
Visa, global head of corporate relations (previously EVP, corporate relations)

2000-2002
Fleishman-Hillard, West Coast regional president; member, operating committee

1997-2000
Pacific Bell, VP, corporate comms

1988-1996
Various posts at Fleishman-Hillard: SVP and GM, Los Angeles office (1996); SVP and GM, San Francisco office (1994-1995); SVP and GM, Hong Kong office (1990-1994); VP, New York office (1988-1990)

1986-1987
Edelman, VP, New York office

Another country Visa started working with in August is Myanmar, also known as Burma, which until earlier this year was off limits for US companies to do business with because of import bans.

"The country is not very well developed, so we're going to start very slowly by working with select banks in training their teams in electronic payments and working with those institutions to install simple infrastructure, such as ATMs," says Michelman.

By working with Myanmar on financial inclusion, Visa is helping the country attract more tourists. If visitors can change currencies using ATMs or use Visa cards for electronic payments at restaurants and hotels, Michelman believes Myanmar will see an increase in tourism and overall business.

Michelman gained international experience during his time at Fleishman-Hillard, where he worked for 15 years as a regional president and senior partner.

John Graham, chairman at Fleishman, who has known Michelman since he began working at the agency in 1988, says he always had a terrific ability "to plan for communications on a long-term basis," and in 1990, his plan was to go to Hong Kong.

The agency was looking for a top-level executive for the Hong Kong office, says Graham, and Michelman asked if he could go. "He said, 'John, I think I can do a great job for the company there,' so he convinced me. He turned out to do a terrific job for us and two years later he became GM of the Hong Kong operation," explains Graham.

He adds that Michelman was also with the agency when it went through a large growth period, expanding from eight offices to more than 50 and from $20 million in annual revenue to $350 million.

At Visa, Michelman oversees communications for a network that operates almost everywhere in the world, with more than 2 billion users and almost 30 million merchant locations where you can swipe a Visa card. To leverage the global network, the PR veteran has been exploring how to integrate mobile technology and some of its product platforms to engage new consumers and bank clients.

"Mobile payments are ways to give someone who has never had a relationship with the bank their first opportunity to take money from underneath the pillow and actually put it in the formal financial system," he adds.

Politically savvy

While Michelman's agency experience has helped him develop various skills for his role at Visa, such as international exposure and trend spotting, his political and media knowledge have also been very beneficial.

In one of his first jobs, Michelman served as a press officer for President Jimmy Carter's re-election campaign in 1980, where he worked with Joe Lockhart, head of communications for Facebook and former President Clinton press secretary.

Visa CEO Joseph Saunders says Michelman's political and media experience "make him a very effective consultant to the business team" because he understands business and effectively communicates messages.

Global reach
Last year, Visa took a stake in Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey's mobile payment startup Square. At the 2012 Olympics, Visa showcased its mobile payments. Michelman says the company had mobile payment executives and communications staff stationed on the ground to do interviews with the world's media and expose consumers, stakeholders, and clients to the new technology. "Because we are a global brand, there are very few properties out there that people universally can connect to or are interested in," he explains. "The most obvious ones are the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup." Michelman's global team, which is made up of about 90 staffers, also promoted Visa's marketing efforts during the Olympics, such as the Global Cheer campaign, which generated more than 60 million "cheers" on Facebook through the end of August. The corporate relations team was also ready to manage a potential crisis or reputation issues around the Games.

Engaging with the public in different ways is important for Visa, explains Michel- man, because people have the misperception that their credit cards come from Visa rather than banks.

Visa is a "misunderstood company" in a lot of ways, he adds, because consumers often equate it with fees and debts, when in actuality, credit card rates and late fees come from banks, not Visa.

While Visa has come a long way since going public five years ago, Michelman says the company has a lot more to do in terms of creating dialogue and engaging constructively with its audiences.

"We've just begun defining Visa and creating a better perception of who we are," he says. "It's like turning around a battleship because for 50 years we've been making the world think we're one thing, when we are actually a different animal." 

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