Comms in a post-PR world

PRWeek, eBay, Egon Zehnder, and Edelman convened senior PR pros from Silicon Valley to discuss best practice and big issues facing the comms and tech sectors during a March event at eBay headquarters in San Jose.

The election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency and tendency for tech companies to speak out on political and social issues means communications leaders are making major calls on when and how to speak out — and when to stay silent.

"We’re all wrestling with which policy to respond to, and which not to, because it’s happening every day," says LinkedIn CMO and SVP of communications Shannon Stubo in conversation with Elliot Schrage, VP of communications and public policy at Facebook. "There are a core set of issues LinkedIn cares about, such as the wage gap and middle-skilled workers, which are relative to what we do as a business — and we respond on that."

The transgender bathroom issue was not something LinkedIn had weighed in on before, and the Microsoft-owned online networking company decided not to release a statement — but not before "a whole set of emails" about whether to engage.

At Facebook, if employees care strongly about an issue then so does the company, with one caveat.

"There’s a lot of me-tooism, and on the comms side we spend a lot of time trying to get our execs and leadership to resist speaking out," explains Schrage. "You pick your spots, and part of our role as communications leads is to help employees understand indignation is not a strategy. It may feel good, but just being outraged doesn’t make you effective."

Schrage identified emotional intelligence as the biggest asset required of communicators, citing this as one reason CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been so successful.

"It means being able to work effectively with other people and to listen," says Schrage. "He listens in an extremely focused way, and it’s incredibly intimidating, because when somebody’s listening that hard you pay a lot more attention — you don’t want to say something stupid." Stubo noted PR skills have evolved to include everything from content marketing to SEO. "What PR people hired five years ago do now is entirely different, and the ones that adapted are thriving," she notes. "You’ve got to be a strategic and agile thinker. All the people I had to tell ‘we’re getting acquired by Microsoft tomorrow’ who adapted and dived in quickly were the ones I wanted on my team."

PANEL DISCUSSION
Jennifer Kuperman,
head of international corporate affairs, Alibaba

Natalie Kerris,
global tech chair, Edelman

Dan Tarman,
SVP and CCO, eBay

Amanda Roberts,
consultant and North America head, CCO practice, Egon Zehnder

How does the post-PR world impact communicators?
Dan Tarman:
I’m a direct report to the CEO and one of 12 members of the executive leadership team. In some companies, comms has been layered into or integrated into marketing. That has implications for what we do.

We’re increasingly thinking of the world starting with content creation and the comms channels through which we distribute content to engage stakeholders. Media still matters because it provides content we amplify, but we start in an audience-specific way and figure out the problem we need to solve and who we’re trying to engage.

Amanda Roberts: Not as many CCOs report to the CEO as we would like. It’s a balance and it’s not industry-specific. A lot of comms people report to marketing and the lines are blurred between who owns the content and who owns the channels.

With the recent focus on brand and company reputation, communications leaders have an incredible opportunity to show their strategic stripes and align themselves closely with CEOs and be a trusted adviser. If you show that discipline and link communications to business strategy, there is an opportunity to play a larger role on the executive team.

Jennifer Kuperman: I report to the executive vice chairman, Joe Tsai, and have a dotted line to CEO Jack Ma because I do everything for him outside China — 97% of our business is in China and 99% of our investors are in the U.S. Our investors can’t use our products and services, so they can’t touch and feel it. We’re trying to build our brand here, but we’re not after the American consumer.

My reporting line into China is critical because I don’t speak the language. I live here, and all the businesses are there. I spend a week a month in China — it’s a very different dynamic, but the same challenges.

Natalie Kerris: PR or media relations are not bad words. I know it sounds utopian and idealistic, but where you sit on an org chart should not matter. It doesn’t always happen that way in organizations. Great branding and marketing starts with the truth, and you have to be in a collaborative environment.

I don’t see it changing as much as people are worried about. There are organizational structures, budgets, and staffing, but at the end of the day, it’s one team — everyone wears the same badge.

Is the valley too insular?
Tarman:
I’m a relative newcomer to Silicon Valley. I’m not a tech person, but I’ve worked across industries, so I had to adapt in a very agile way to learn new ways of doing things.

As the pace of innovation and how people engage and process information accelerates, it is important to have that ability to adapt, learn, and be emotionally intelligent. We do ourselves a disservice if we are too "clubby" and insular and don’t consider candidates from a variety of backgrounds. The tech industry can fall in love with its own "you know what" sometimes.

Kuperman: It is different in tech. I’ve seen some rejected organs come into our environment, and it’s a pace thing. There’s no bureaucracy. If you’re process-oriented, asking about your career path, and focused on hierarchy, it just doesn’t translate.

I subscribe to the "hire the athlete, not the specialist" line, especially these days. There’s no place for somebody who knows one thing — we’re not vertical anymore.

Kerris: When building a comms plan, you have to be open-minded and realize things change quickly.

Most tech companies have traditionally made more than half their revenue outside the U.S., so you have to be really open-minded and understand the audience and cultural differences. But constantly challenge yourself. If there’s anything you’re not doing because "we don’t do that" — I would stop and think about it.

Roberts: Technology is innately innovative and disruptive, much more so than traditional industries such as manufacturing and industrial. That agile environment allows for things like potential to really come up.

We think very specifically about traits such as curiosity, insight, engagement, determination, and curiosity; seeking new challenges and feedback and insight; putting disparate pieces of information together and simplifying complexity; and having social intelligence and determination energized by adversity.

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