From newsroom assistant to head of PR at a billion-dollar tech company, Marlena Fernandez brings an unerring resolve to her position - even with a potential mega-merger on the horizon.
Marlena Fernandez could very well be the only communications person to admit wanting to return part of her budget.
"Communications groups should have some limited resources," says the VP of corporate communications at Veritas Software. "You can only talk to so many reporters. You need to focus. When you're doing too much, when you're spreading yourself too thin, you can't be as strategic. Only so many things will be written about you."
That's quite a change from Fernandez's first job as a reporter, writing about pretty much anything and everything.
"I always liked the adrenaline rush of the news," says Fernandez, who began her career at the Boston Herald. "I'd cover whatever they threw my way. Once, I had a to write a story about a bus that hit someone and ran."
But that was a little more than a decade ago. In less than 12 years, Fernandez, 35, has gone from editorial assistant to communications leader at a $1.7 billion storage technology company.
"She's young and she's smart," says Dave Samson, GM of public affairs at ChevronTexaco. Samson met Fernandez when the two worked at Oracle. "She's in a role beyond her years. She is highly valued by [CEO] Gary Bloom. She's viewed as a strong leader by her team. Marlena is someone that has risen to a top communications job in a short amount of time, which sends a great message that not all leaders in our profession are 25-year veterans."
Her focus on strategy and results is something Fernandez says she has brought to all of her jobs. It's also something she's honed over time, picking up experience from jobs no one else wanted, from writing obituaries to handling communications for extremely complex technology at IBM and Oracle.
But before Fernandez delved into tech, she traded journalism for a stint at Boston City Hall, where she served as press secretary for councilman Bruce Bolling, including during his run for mayor. When Bill Clinton was elected president, he selected Boston Mayor Ray Flynn as a diplomat, which led 15 candidates to run for his seat, including Fernandez's boss.
"It was a very high-profile race," says Fernandez. "There was an ex-nun running. There were many colorful characters. So the race put us on the local and national stage. Being a part of the campaign, and really understanding the issues, was intellectually stimulating."
Fernandez eventually left the campaign, however, explaining that she lost faith in the candidate. "I can't represent someone I don't believe in," she says.
She moved to New York, hoping to get back into journalism. But technology was starting to get hot and jobs were available at PR firms. She soon discovered that the technology industry could be just as exciting for her as journalism or politics.
"I find nothing more academically challenging than understanding a technology and translating that information for human consumption," she says.
Fernandez quickly took on complex accounts no one else wanted because the technology behind them was too difficult to explain, she recalls. But it was her work leading the account team for IBM's RS/6000 division - a technology used to build the Deep Blue supercomputer - that helped generate massive press coverage for a complex technology. And it got Fernandez some attention as well.
She ended up at Oracle working on application development tools. It was another job no one wanted, she says, because the products were the firm's lowest revenue makers.
"I learned a lot at Oracle," says Fernandez. "You learn how to make things work by yourself. It was a great lesson."
Fernandez points to subsequent experiences that helped broaden her perspective. At Access Communications, she learned about the importance of a supportive culture. She also picked up perspective from consumer accounts and learned to apply it to technology. So much of technology is focused on b-to-b, notes Fernandez, that she is grateful to have learned best practices from different disciplines and, as a result, she brings consumer strategies to b-to-b.
"She has common sense, savvy, and great instincts," says broadcast journalist turned communications consultant Lee Zeidman, whom Fernandez cites as a mentor. "She knows how to [deal] with high-profile executives. She treats people with dignity and respect, but isn't afraid to voice her opinion. She's tough."
And that has served her well at Veritas. She says she loves the collaborative, open culture, which was vital in helping her make the changes she wanted. Corporate communications was a bit of a blank slate when Fernandez arrived, she recalls, adding that she's worked hard to get the company focused on communications strategy and branding.
Fernandez feels she has been lucky that many of her jobs have placed her in high-profile positions that enabled her to take risks and learn from her successes, as well as her mistakes.
Welcoming risk is one of her great attributes, says Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman, Veritas' agency. Faced with media scrutiny over her company's poor earnings, Fernandez was unflappable, recalls Edelman, noting how she intuitively shifted the focus of the press to customer-success stories.
Fernandez handled herself with equal aplomb when she first joined Veritas, adds Zeidman. Just after she started, former CFO Kenneth Lonchar quit after revealing that he had lied about earning an MBA at Stanford University. "She did a hell of a job," says Zeidman.
Nonetheless, Fernandez faces an uncertain future - Symantec is planning to acquire Veritas later this year. Fernandez says she is open to whatever the future holds, whether or not there is an opportunity with the merged company.
"I've always had a desire to be successful," says Fernandez. "But now that I have a son, it's a lot less ego-driven. It comes down to the excitement of conducting the orchestra and having your team collaborate and make beautiful music. It's an exciting challenge, and I'm looking forward to the next one."
VP of corporate comms, Veritas Software
Senior director of PR, Loudcloud/Opsware
VP, Access Communications
Senior PR manager, Oracle
Account supervisor, TSI
Account executive, Progressive Strategies
Press secretary, Boston City Hall
Editorial assistant, Boston Herald