Q&A: Illuminating GE's brand

Gary Sheffer, VP of corporate communications and public affairs at GE, spoke prior to the roundtable about what it takes to be a champion brand.

Gary Sheffer, VP of corporate communications and public affairs at GE, spoke to PRWeek managing editor Gideon Fidelzeid prior to the roundtable about what it takes to be a champion brand. Among many topics, Sheffer, the current chair of the Arthur W. Page Society, highlighted the key role content and transparency play in building and maintaining his iconic brand's power.

Gideon Fidelzeid: Please describe GE's brand.

Gary Sheffer: Over the years, GE's brand has been remarkably consistent. All of our taglines have been about progress, optimism, and innovation.

When I joined GE in 1999, I conducted a survey asking people: who is GE? It always came back to GE equals innovation and progress. That's what the GE brand is about – solving really tough, big problems using technology, leadership, and people. That stretches all the way back to Thomas Edison.

Fidelzeid: How have the CEOs you've worked with impacted GE's brand?

Sheffer: Jack Welch was the brand when he was CEO in the 1990s, which was good. People came to work for us or they bought the stock because of him.

Jeff Immelt got the job two days before 9/11 and the world changed. Not just because of that day's events, but WorldCom, Enron, and others. It was the most volatile period in modern American business outside of the Depression or World War II. From having a celebrity CEO, we entered a period where our performance was challenged by a number of things, including our own portfolio.

Jeff is a marketer. He really understands brand. That's when we switched from We Bring Good Things To Life to Imagination At Work because of this need to be more contemporary and to be perceived as innovative. Jeff drove that. He knew we needed something contemporary that spoke to the businesses we were in. When people heard We Bring Good Things To Life, they thought of appliances and light bulbs, which today is about 3% of GE.

Even today, whenever we're in a tough spot and we're talking about something that's challenging from a reputational standpoint, Jeff will be talking to a business leader and say, “I own the brand and that's bigger than this issue we're talking about.” I feel lucky to work for someone with that point of view.

Fidelzeid: Talk a bit about the importance of transparency to an organization's brand.

Sheffer: I'm not afraid of anything that's going on in the company. Giving people a window into that doesn't scare me.

When Jack was CEO, GE was a monolithic communications company. He was the spokesperson. No other people in the company were expected to speak. We have had to move from that sort of conservative, monolithic communications culture to one where we want to be engaged with the world. Our culture is strong and admirable enough that there's no reason not to take it beyond the firewall and let people see it, experience it, and participate in it.

Fidelzeid: In recent interviews, you've spoken about GE's content creation and some of the issues that were troubling it, including it not being very strategic. What is your philosophy on creating content that truly represents and builds the brand?

Sheffer: When I came to GE, my job was to keep The Financial Times, The New York Times, Fortune, and those guys happy. Now you have to do it yourself, so it takes a completely different set of skills and strategy. And when you're trying something new, some of the things you do miss. And we miss when we get away from the strategy or the culture of the company.

In creating editorial, you always have to think about who we are. And you've got to hire different people. Tomas Kellner is managing editor of GE Reports. He is a true journalist. We send him out to cover the company, good and bad. What he does really gives us more of a long-form place to talk about issues where nuance may be lost on traditional media.

Fidelzeid: Keeping APCO's four key elements of Champion Brand status in mind – alignment, authenticity, attachment, and advocacy – please identify some brands you deem worthy of that distinction.

Sheffer: I admire Tesla for being so transparent about the issues it has faced, including the battery fires. They're unafraid of engagement with people who might have a different point of view. Boeing, ExxonMobil, and Chevron are all engaged in tough industries, but they are eyes wide open and are out there and talking about it. I tend to admire brands that like to be in the public discussion.

Fidelzeid: What is your strategy for protecting the brand amid crisis situations?

Sheffer: Our number-one rule in a crisis is no self-inflicted wounds. I'll offer an example.

We made the nuclear reactors at Fukushima. These were designed in the 1950s and have been operating since then very well. Of course, an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 put them out of commission. There was no power to them for about three weeks.

We didn't have the basic facts on those reactors when we started dealing with that crisis. Our nuclear business is in Wilmington, NC. I was rushed down there to run the crisis team. My first question was, “Where are the plans for the reactors? What's the regulatory history?” Silence. All the people who knew that retired a long time ago. Ultimately, we found the plans in a warehouse in Bridgeport, CT.

You must have the depth of expertise in this kind of situation. You need to have all the information immediately and you must fully understand your risks as a company ahead of time. We lost the first few days of that crisis because there were people who doubted the capabilities of those reactors going back many years, including some of our own employees.

We also used GE Reports during the crisis to show people exactly what the reactors looked like, what they did, and their history through the years. That content capability and platform allowed us to tell a story we never could before – a technical story with a bit of depth and a bit of imagery and illustration.

Do no harm, be prepared, and make sure you've got the right platforms to tell your story.

Fidelzeid: We kicked off this discussion with your definition of GE's brand. Do you feel people outside the company have a similar view of it?

Sheffer: We have very high recognition and favorability, but I don't think external audiences have the depth of understanding of who we are today.

Over the last few months, I've spoken to many grad students studying communications. When I ask them to tell me something they know about GE, it often goes back to some of the myths from the Jack Welch era. That tells me we still have work to do. That's why we focus on content so much. We gear a lot of it toward young people. We do a lot on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. We have to build a new generation of people who appreciate the brand and want to work here.

Fidelzeid: How has your background in journalism and politics helped the GE brand?

Sheffer: Journalism and politics are great training grounds for corporate communications. Journalism taught me the ability to think clearly and to synthesize information, which is really what strategy is about. Public affairs taught me how to talk to people. When I came to GE, our engagement with NGOs and those in the environmental movement was ”Talk to the hand.” I feel as though I helped make a change in GE because of that. In government you have no choice but to talk to your constituents.

Fidelzeid: People in general do not trust large organizations and corporations. With the recent financial crisis, that sentiment has only grown. How does GE deal with this trust issue around its size and scale?

Gary Sheffer: People don't like big institutions. They like the troops, but they don't like the Pentagon. It's really about humanizing the company and making your people your face to the world in a lot of ways. You need to self-define and you must give people a window into your company.

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