Corning has been selling its switch from glassware to optical
networking, but now that the telecom sector has cooled, Robin Londner
finds that the company has been forced to think again.
Lucky in cards, unlucky in love, telecommunications company Corning has
been effective in PR, but unfortunate in timing.
Once known for top-quality glassware, the 150-year-old Corning switched
its focus in Spring 2000, joining the hot telecom sector just as it
began to cool.
Moving glass expertise to optical networking, which entails delicate
glass work, Corning promoted its change in focus from pots and pans to
liquid-crystal displays and flat-panel screens.
Analysts and reporters covering the NYSE-listed stock bought the story,
and gave the former cookware company high points in its new sector.
Though Corning broke into big money by mass-producing light bulbs, its
long history has given it some leeway with skeptical reporters used to
dealing with fly-by-night start-ups.
Dow Jones News Service telecommunications reporter Johnathan Burns
explains: "The fact that Corning is old makes it seem like a reliable
company, and you tend to take them at their word as opposed to companies
that have not been around for a lot of years," says Burns. "They don't
have the start-up feel a lot of telecom companies have."
However, the telecom market has continued to slow, partly in response to
the September 11 attacks, and because Corning has been forced to stop
most production of optical fiber until 2002 and cut 12,000 workers (28%
of the 43,000 workers it had at the beginning of the year).
Corning's own corporate communications staff did not go unscathed. The
New York-based company had a PR budget of over $1 million and
numbered 24 people, plus support staff. Layoffs have affected the
communications staff, though VP of corporate communications Dan Collins
will not disclose details.
Collins says the challenges he faces are intriguing. In the first half
of 2001, his story was the company's transformation into a telecom
Since then, he has had to redesign his internal and external
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Collins has spent much of his
time focusing on internal-only communiques of compassion, and has only
more recently been turning the spotlight toward Corning's other
businesses, such as environmental technologies and display panels.
"The first week after the September 11 attacks, we were in crisis mode,"
says Collins. "We had to look at our travel policies and security
measures, as well as individuals stranded overseas or not in their home
base. We had to tell them how the company would support them and get
Keeping employees informed
Corning's corporate team focused on what Collins terms "a relentless
program of communications internally." Every two weeks, employees
receive an e-mail from CEO John Loose, detailing the current business
environment and how Corning is performing. And every 10 days, employees
receive a voicemail from Loose and division heads informing them about
Open forum employee meetings, which allow staff members to air their
grievances and make suggestions, used to be held once a quarter; now
they're held every six weeks. Various Corning business leaders also
answer Q&As posted on the company's intranet to give employees a feel
for what's going on in each division of Corning's businesses.
"We have communicated that these are unusual times," says Collins. "The
decisions made by the company to reduce the workforce are important to
the long-term survival of the company. As a company, we've taken our
recruiting staff, which a year ago was out recruiting thousands of
employees, and we've turned them around into an organization called
'Talent-to-Talent.' They take affected employees of workforce reductions
and help them to find new employers."
Reworking external communications
The events of September 11 have also led to Corning to refocus its
external marketing strategy.
Jennifer McNeil, VP at Brodeur Worldwide, corporate agency of record for
Corning for the past two years, says, "They did suspend their national
advertising, but they still do product and divisional advertising."
Media relations also took a back seat during that fateful week.
Moving forward, McNeil says, "We're continuing to speak to the major
media as we have news and developments. We have a story to tell in terms
of Corning's optical strategy, and we've also started turning up the
heat on their story of diversity, such as their liquid-crystal display
business, which has been strong."
The layoffs have not affected the structure of communications, says
Paul Rogoski is director of external communications, while colleague
Dave Kaplan, director of corporate communications, handles crisis,
financial relations, and inter-action with the board of directors.
Monica Ott heads media relations, and each of Corning's six primary
businesses has a senior manager for communications. Corning cable
systems, Corning optical fiber, Corning photonic technologies, and
Corning advanced materials (liquid-crystal display and flat-panel glass)
are the major interests, while Corning life sciences (micro-ray and
biotechnology work) and Corning environmental technologies (ceramic
substrates for catalytic converters) are smaller businesses.
Collins says there are two secrets to his success. First, when he was
brought in to reshape the company's communications in anticipation of
the rebranding from glassware to biotechnology, Collins promoted many of
the current corporate communications staff, and then brought in new
people to enlarge the department. In addition, Collins says the quality
of past media relations campaigns has helped the company retain its
reputation, despite the telecom sector's overall downturn.
"Our reputation hasn't been hammered as much as others, which I think is
driven by the fact that we spent a lot of time managing that reputation.
Being forthright with reporters really helped us in the long run," says
Dow Jones' Burns agrees, praising Corning, while in the same breath
predicting continued gloom for the telecom sector. "I think they're a
pretty easy company to talk to," he says. "Investors respect a company
for being straightforward and honest."
But will they invest in a company that continues to lower earnings
Corning posted a $220 million third-quarter loss in October, and
saw its shares fall by almost 5%. The company did not offer analysts an
outlook for 2002, so Corning may have to wait a few quarters for
investors to get excited about telecom stocks again. But Burns predicts
that as long as the company keeps its information channels open,
investors will return to Corning when their eyes are re-opened to the
wonders of optical networking.
VP of corporate communications: Dan Collins
Director of external communications: Paul Rogoski
Director of corporate communications: Dave Kaplan
Manager of media relations: Monica Ott
Manager of corporate marketing communications: Beth Damm
Manager of internal and executive communications: Anne Kenlon
Outside Agency: Brodeur Worldwide
Budget: Over $1 million