PROFILE: Stephens sticks with truth during HP's ups and downs

With a background in TV journalism and parents who honed her debating skills, Suzette Stephens knows that establishing credibility and trust comes before telling HP's story.

With a background in TV journalism and parents who honed her debating skills, Suzette Stephens knows that establishing credibility and trust comes before telling HP's story.

Suzette Stephens' career began by arguing with her mother and father at the dinner table. "My fondest memories of home are sitting around the dinner table, debating with my parents," recalls Stephens, 34, Hewlett-Packard's VP of global communications. "We would debate the subject of the day, whatever it was. My parents could argue any point of view. They always made it intellectually challenging and stimulating. They were always making counterpoints. And the debate was always about the quality of the argument, not whether you won." Such advice has served Stephens well in her communications career. She admits to using the skills that she honed in her London home today at HP. "Your success is based on your credibility and your ability to persuade someone based on the quality of the facts you have at hand," says Stephens. So she keeps in mind that journalists are smart and motivated by compelling facts. "When I think about any conversation I am going to have with a member of the press, I'm always considering the long-term relationship, which is built on trust. It's not about the story of the day. It breaks my heart when I see people try to win someone over for one story. You've got to start from a firm basis of credibility, and build on that. "I've been at HP for five years," she continues. "I have an institutional and historical knowledge that is particularly valuable for reporters whose beats are always changing." Before those years at HP, where Stephens earned her tech PR wings, her formative years were spent at the BBC and Houses of Parliament, while earning a first-class honors bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Leeds, and an MS from the London School of Economics. "I was a political aide to Dr. Tony Wright [in Parliament], and I was also working in the political-reporting division at BBC Westminster, which was right across from the House of Commons," says Stephens. "It was really fun. I was studying political policy and economics, and then I was seeing those policies being made in real time on the floor of the Houses of Parliament. We were discussing in class how Britain should take its next steps on monetary policy, and then I was working with the very people forming those policies. I had a fantastic time." Her marriage to an American brought her to the US 10 years ago, right after school. With her BBC experience, KQED, PBS' Bay Area affiliate, hired her as a producer of the political news show This Week in Northern California. "She was a very savvy producer," says David Weir, an EVP at KQED at the time, now a professor of journalism at Stanford University (he also cofounded Salon.com and the Center for Investigative Reporting). "She saw opportunities and knew what to do with them. It was easy to see she was a dynamo. She has integrity. With Suzette, it's not about spinning or manipulating something. She truly has something that she is proud to promote. She is immensely intelligent, and that differentiates her from a lot of people." After a couple of years at KQED, Stephens tried her hand as a freelance investigative journalist, including a documentary about a Russian mafia crime ring operating out of San Francisco. It might be hard for some to imagine the willowy Stephens, who many reporters praise for her sense of humor, hounding the Russian mafia and FBI agents. But if Stephens is anything, she's fiercely tenacious and dedicated. That helped her get the documentary Super Highway Robbery aired on The Discovery Channel, and her foot in the door at HP. After initial discussions at HP about writing a story about the company, Stephens found herself on the receiving end of interviews that led to her joining former CEO Lewis Platt's media relations team. A year later, Carly Fiorina came on board as CEO, and Stephens was with her every step of the way, even during the tumultuous merger with Compaq. She later became director of CEO communications. "It's been an incredible, enormous privilege to be at this company at this point in time," asserts Stephens, who enjoys "great food, drink, and conversation," as well as doting over her 21-month-old daughter Sophia, when not educating others about HP's global role as a hi-tech leader. "This company has been undergoing an incredible transformation, and I've witnessed it firsthand. HP has changed the competitive landscape. It is leading instead of following. It's important for people to understand the game has changed." Which includes constant interaction with the media. San Jose Mercury News business writer Dean Takahashi says Stephens does a good job of working with journalists and anticipating stories that they're after. "When I've needed to do a series of interviews, she's been able to make that happen," Takahashi says. "She's good at letting you know what kind of news is coming up. I like her sense of humor. She's diplomatic. Those two traits help defuse any confrontations. We don't agree on everything, and we don't shy away from confrontations. But we're able to carry out conversations in a professional way." For Stephens, it's about getting the truth out, whether it was debating with her parents or making sure that Fiorina gets the credit Stephens says she deserves for leading HP along its prosperous path. Stephens likes to point out that two books have been written about HP since Fiorina became CEO, and the Harvard Business Review is one of a few publications planning case studies on Fiorina's leadership. "It's all about defying conventional wisdom," says Stephens of Fiorina's success, and probably her own success as well. "You can't be buffeted about by conventional wisdom. You have to do what you think is right, and lead. I see my job as educating and demonstrating the art of the possible." ----- Suzette Stephens 2003 Hewlett-Packard, VP of global comms 1998 Hewlett-Packard, media relations, rising to director of CEO comms 1995 Freelance investigative journalist 1994 KQED, producer 1992 Houses of Parliament, political aide; London School of Economics, MS degree 1991 BBC, journalist 1988 University of Leeds, first-class honors bachelor's degree in political science

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