How legacy tech brands can communicate at Silicon Valley's pace of change

Experts' three steps for communicators: focus on what you are bringing to market, set metrics, and deliver results.

Legacy tech brands such as HP are changing their businesses to keep pace with innovation.
Legacy tech brands such as HP are changing their businesses to keep pace with innovation.

The landscape in Silicon Valley is shifting. As large tech companies change their businesses in hopes of keeping pace with innovation, the pressure is on communications leaders to redefine these legacy brands.

Since late September, eBay, Hewlett-Packard, and Symantec have each announced plans to spur growth by breaking up their business units into separate companies. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen told CNBC in October that these splits are a "major trend" in technology, predicting that "every large tech company more than 20 years old breaks up." Analysts have speculated whether firms such as EMC, IBM, or Oracle will follow suit and split into more focused units.

Other tech companies have taken different approaches to changing their business models. Dell went private last year; CEO Michael Dell said it did so because innovation had "suffered" due to shareholders demanding "short-term results."

At software giant SAP, which faces challenges from competitors including Salesforce.com, new CEO William McDermott is overseeing a plan to build a global marketplace for business products and services that could compete with Alibaba.

Such business shifts, which often accompany leadership turnover, have implications for communications departments.

Symantec communications leader Colleen Lacter left last week after just more than a year in the job. The company cut the CCO position and is reorganizing its comms and marketing departments ahead of its corporate split. Earlier this year, Symantec also fired chief executive Steve Bennett, the second time it sacked a CEO in less than two years. Board member Michael Brown replaced him.

"Part of the culture and DNA of Silicon Valley is rapid change. CEOs and executive leadership are also changing at a more rapid pace, and boards are expecting CEOs to deliver much faster for stakeholders," says Harry Pforzheimer, a PR consultant who previously led comms for Symantec and Intuit. "CEOs as they come and go often want their own teams and not the ones they inherited when coming in."

As the communications chief for Intuit, Pforzheimer worked with Bennett, who went on to become chief of Symantec and hired him in 2012 for the top comms job there. Pforzheimer left Symantec less than a year later and was succeeded by Lacter. 

At Juniper Networks, another tech company that recently dumped its CEO and is struggling to grow its business, former corporate communications VP Lee Flanagin left in October after only three months in the role. Juniper is not planning to replace him

"There are much higher expectations on PR professionals to drive change," Pforzheimer explains. "With those higher expectations that the leadership team has on communications, you have got to deliver results."

At large tech companies trying to redefine themselves, communications professionals can help by narrowing their focus to storytelling about specific business divisions, says Andy Cunningham, the founder and CEO of marketing consultancy SeriesC, who worked with Apple to launch the Macintosh in the 1980s.

"When companies get so big, they have a hard time focusing on what it is they’re actually bringing to the market," notes Cunningham, who has been working in Silicon Valley since 1983. "From a communications perspective, the key is positioning – how do you position what the new company is going to do, and how do you create relevance for that new thing?"

Media outlets in Silicon Valley are "voracious," so tech companies can easily lose control of their story, says Sean Mills, regional director of North America for Bite.

"Outline the playbook for what it is you’re going to do to turn the company around and set specific milestones that you can report back against," he explains. "If you’ve taken time to explain your path and how it’s going to play out, when news breaks, people have a frame of reference to see the bigger picture and how the company has made progress instead of immediately assuming something has gone wrong."

In that vein, Silicon Valley communicators should "take customers on a journey" rather than focusing exclusively on product launches or other one-off events, says Eastwick CEO Barbara Bates, who has worked in the area for 25 years.

Mills also advises setting up a platform that serves as the authoritative voice for the company. For example, in 2012, HP launched a corporate newsroom with the goal of pointing journalists to the site for breaking news about the company, he recalls.

"Tech prides itself on eating its young. It’s an extraordinarily fast-changing industry," Mills says. "A company like Myspace, which was once the next hot thing, was an afterthought five years later. Everyone loves the next big thing until it is the big thing, and then everyone guns for them."

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