Nothing better illustrates Cisco’s transformation from obscure networking technology manufacturer to household name than an incident last fall at a press conference for NetAid.
Nothing better illustrates Cisco’s transformation from obscure
networking technology manufacturer to household name than an incident
last fall at a press conference for NetAid.
Cisco president and CEO John Chambers was on stage there alongside
United Nations dignitaries and celebrities to promote the
Cisco-sponsored web site and rock concerts held to raise awareness of
’Amid the immediate rush for the stage, just as Chambers was finishing
up another interview, this reporter tried to run up to him,’ recalls
Doug Wills, head of Cisco’s corporate PR team, who threw up an arm to
hold the scribe back from his boss. ’He obviously thought I was an
entertainment flack and said to me, ’You don’t understand. This guy is
the Sean Puffy Combs of the Internet.’’
And so he is. If every dog has his day, today belongs to Chambers. In
the past year alone, he has starred in a CNNfn profile and landed on
Business Week’s list of the top 25 managers of 1999.
Meanwhile, peppered by daily updates on its rising stock price and
climbing sales, Cisco has gone from an obscure networking company to a
brand synonymous with the Silicon Valley boom. But if you are tempted to
chalk all the glowingly positive coverage up to stellar financial
performance, think again. To be sure, with sales up 44% and share price
up 130% in 1999, Cisco is the fastest growing corporation in history and
the third most valuable company in the world, behind Microsoft and GE.
However, the work of Wills’ well-oiled corporate PR machine can
certainly be credited with stoking the media firestorm.
Up until about two years ago, Cisco had maintained a low profile,
concentrating on product PR in the tech trades and racking up profits
behind the scenes.
But when director of executive communications and corporate PR Lorene
Arey hired Wills in September 1997 as group manager for corporate PR,
that strategy shifted 180 degrees. A former DC lobbyist and political
reporter who had helped launch Windows 95 at Waggener-Edstrom, Wills
immediately sought to position Cisco for mainstream media coverage.
’A few years ago, our biggest challenge was establishing relevance,’ he
explains. ’We saw a real opportunity to position ourselves as an
Internet leader and a driver of the new Internet economy.’
Part of that strategy required elevating Chambers into celebrity-CEO
status, ’making him the Jack Welch of the Internet,’ as Wills puts
A humble Southerner at heart, Chambers is said to have resisted at
That is, until presented with the alternative of spending hundreds of
millions more on advertising to out-brand Cisco’s competitors.
In order to work more closely with Chambers and better engineer this
mainstream media push, Wills and Arey moved corporate PR out of
marketing and into the office of the president in June 1998. The
restructuring was more than symbolic - it actually helped establish PR
as a part of the company’s strategic operations and made Wills’ team
integral management players. In fact, the PR troops actually set up camp
in cubicles surrounding Chambers’ unassuming office.
And as Cisco charged ahead with an acquisition binge, gobbling up more
than 27 companies in the past 18 months, ’PR has been brought in on
every deal right from the very start,’ says corporate PR manager Abby
Smith is just one of the eclectic 10-member ’dream team’ Wills has
assembled since the restructuring. ’We made some very nontraditional
hires here and now have a huge mix of people with different
backgrounds,’ he says.
Team members include the spokesman for the Democratic National Committee
and two ex-MSNBC producers.
Armed with strong resources in-house, Cisco pulled the plug on long-time
agency of record Cunningham Communication (though the firm still works
on many projects with the marketing department) and parceled out
specific assignments to several smaller firms specializing in niche
Ultimately, the new arrangement gave Cisco more direct control over its
image on a daily basis. ’We are able to execute better and faster,’
Wills explains. ’When a reporter calls, and you are sitting 20 feet away
from the CEO’s office, that’s when you see the advantage of having your
corporate PR in-house. It removes another layer.’
Control is something that reporters on the Cisco beat often grumble
Word on the street is that Wills and company are often a
detail-obsessed, demanding and definitely aggressive bunch. ’You can
never do an end run on them,’ comments one journalist. ’They definitely
know what they are doing; even when you think they have let their guard
down and are letting something slip out, later you find out it was
really nothing,’ says another writer.
But at the same time, the company’s quick response, accessibility and
lack of hierarchy score points with the same reporters. Most place Cisco
in the same league as Intel - and far above universally disdained Apple
- for its ’sophisticated, organized approach to PR.’
In fact, a tour of Cisco’s corporate web site supports that
Compared to competitors such as Lucent or 3Com, which supply reporters
with only a blind e-mail link, the pressroom area of Cisco’s site
provides a clear roadmap for the ’who, what and where’ for any type of
Challenges still ahead
But members of the corporate team insist there are plenty of hills still
to be scaled. In addition to maintaining the ground they have
established, they will aim more aggressively this year for depiction as
an innovator, rather than just a champion in the acquisitions race. As
they move into the home products market, they also hope to boost Cisco’s
image as a consumer company. They are looking to raise the company’s
profile internationally as well. ’We have made great strides in Asia,
but we still face challenges in Europe and Latin America,’ admits
And nobody at Cisco is taking anything for granted. ’Remember, Microsoft
used to only get great press, too,’ Wills cautions. And as the company
continues on its acquisition charge, Cisco becomes increasingly
vulnerable to scrutiny. Should a merger go awry, negative coverage could
throw the team its first crisis communications challenge.
Wills says the crew is up for the challenge: ’We are a risk-taking
company. We are not for those people who like to score five out of five,
but for those who aim for eight out of 10.’
Internal PR staff:
Lorene Arey, director, executive communications & corporate PR: oversees
total staff of 13; Doug Wills, group manager, corporate PR: oversees 10
corporate PR managers External agencies
Barokas Public Relations (Seattle); Greer Margolis Mitchell Burns &
Associates (Washington, DC); Quinn Gillespie (Washington, DC); Klopak
Schecter & Leonard (Washington, DC); Cunningham Communication (Palo
Alto, CA) Financials*
1999 sales: dollars 12.154m
1999 net income: dollars 2.096m
*Source: Hoovers Online.