CORPORATE CASE STUDY: Internal voices combine to deliver Oracle's message

Frustrated at how poorly Oracle was being treated in the media, CEO Larry Ellison gave the green light to expanding the company's PR efforts to help it build trust and credibility.

Frustrated at how poorly Oracle was being treated in the media, CEO Larry Ellison gave the green light to expanding the company's PR efforts to help it build trust and credibility.

Welcome to Oracle's "echo chamber." "It's about getting a harmonization of all those voices that can influence someone's perception of the company," says Jim Finn, Oracle's VP of global corporate communications. "The idea of the echo chamber, where everyone is saying the same thing, came in my first meeting with [CEO] Larry [Ellison]. He said Oracle's media coverage was bad, and wanted to know why. "You know, the media is just the tip of the iceberg," Finn continues. "The media listen to the financial analysts, customers, partners, and employees. They listen and make conclusions. Oracle is a provocative, differentiating company, and it was not aligning all those voices in the echo chamber. People, including the media, were getting conflicting messages. Once we got all those voices in harmony, we've seen it ease the tension in the stories." This has led to a swift change in Oracle's communications, from pushing messages to engaging with stakeholders. "I think that has been most evident in our analyst relations," Finn observes. "Before we talked at you. Now it's much more interactive. It's more of a discussion." When Finn arrived in October 2001, he knew one of the best ways to build his echo chamber was to increase the in-house communications staff. Finn has added dozens of people, and today has a total of 115 staffers around the world, 46 of whom are in the US. "Companies like Microsoft, SAP, and IBM have hundreds of communicators," he says. "And if you have too many communicators, it can get in your way. I hired more people because we were underinvesting in communications, and Larry was prepared to make more of an investment. Oracle cares so much about PR. This is a $10 billion brand that was built on PR, not advertising. And communications remains important, especially right now, in an environment where people are ducking and avoiding answering the hard questions. "It's our job to establish and build trust and credibility with all our stakeholders," he adds. "And I want to give our team the ability to do that. I believe in delegating and collaboration. I don't care what title is sitting across the desk from you. You fight for what you believe in, and I will support you." But Finn's echo chamber and augmented communications staff doesn't mean that Oracle's negative perceptions have disappeared, particularly among the media. Finn has blasted the media's attitude, arguing that the press has been incredibly negative during the hi-tech downturn, with journalists more interested in playing the "blame game" than actually looking at the reasons for the slump. The media was also more interested in salacious innuendo than the facts over allegations that the state of California bought Oracle software after the company gave a campaign contribution to Gov. Gray Davis. And that's why the echo chamber is so important to Finn - so that the media receives the same message from various sources. And for those media who Finn believes treat Oracle unfairly, those other voices in the echo chamber counter that negative coverage. A two-way street "When the bubble burst, I think journalists felt complicit," says Finn. "So the pendulum has swung to a negative place. Perhaps we need to have as high a standard for writing a negative story as we do for writing a positive story. But we're a big company. Maybe we deserve more scrutiny; but if you don't respect us, don't expect us to spend time with you. I will spend time with those who want to understand what we are about. We do take a strong view of the media. We have rights, and you have to be fair and balanced. If you are, then we are willing to be open and let you in." The media's feelings about Oracle are equally a love-hate relationship. Several reporters contacted by PRWeek didn't want to talk on the record. But some said that Oracle is no more difficult to work with than any large corporation, and there are plenty more that are much worse to work with. Some went so far as to say they had absolutely no problem working with Oracle. But then there were those who said the company can be "retaliatory," and "punishes" reporters by withholding information or access. "Let's just say we keep score," says VP of corporate PR Jennifer Glass. "We can be extremely aggressive, because Oracle has rights in this game too. There's no room for inaccurate and misrepresentative journalism. If a reporter does one of those stories, they will get a call from me, and it won't be pleasant. Some publications go out of their way to give us an extra kick. I guess it makes good copy for them. We're not looking for the sweetheart story; what we want is fair and balanced." Involving employees Oracle isn't the least bit apologetic about this approach, because corporate communications' mission is to define and defend the corporate reputation, says Glass. That's why all elements of communications are vital - not just media relations. Oracle's leaders are clear about their vision and goals, and share that with employees so they can be part of that vision, explains Donna Uchida, director of internal communications. Employees are encouraged to know more about Oracle and the big picture, so that they have a better understanding of how their work and their roles make a difference. "Employees need to be part of the echo chamber," asserts Uchida. "We need to make sure they understand the position and business direction of the company, so that in all of their interaction with customers or partners or others, they can explain what Oracle does, and where Oracle is going, and be consistent with all the messages and communications." By involving employees more, especially at such an unsteady time in the hi-tech industry, it gives the employees a sense that they are valued partners, and they in turn have greater trust in their company, says Uchida. "If an issue comes up, it's our duty to address it," she says. "If not, then we leave each employee to interpret it on their own. And that can create conflicting messages." Oracle's communications team is made up of strong businesspeople whose expertise happens to be communications, explains Dave Samson, VP of international corporate communications. And that enables the team to be strategic communicators, not just publicity people. "When we sit down at an executive meeting, we want to make sure PR is represented at the table," Samson says. "I know we are lucky that at Oracle, at the highest executive levels, we are seen as strategic contributors," adds Glass. "I've worked in places where PR is last to be told anything. The executives here are extremely astute about the role it can play, and that makes an enormous difference in the fabric of everything we do. We have access to the highest levels of information, and because of that we can be better counselors." With the bursting of the internet bubble also came the death of hype, which has forced all hi-tech companies to change the tone of their communications. For Samson, regardless of what corner of the world the message is coming from, it has to be newsworthy, credible, and defensible. "That's the filter we put everything through. There's a move away from a push system of communications, to active engagement of all the people we need to communicate with." For Finn, it all comes back to building and establishing trust and credibility. The past year wasn't about products or service. Instead, everyone was focused on quality of management, financial issues, sales, and reputation. But regardless of the issue, Finn knows that his job is to maintain that echo chamber, so everyone hears the same message, and knows where Oracle is coming from and where it's going. "If we're all doing our jobs properly, then we're sending out the same message that will resonate in the minds of all our stakeholders," asserts Finn. ----- PR contacts VP of global corporate communications Jim Finn VP of international corporate communications Dave Samson VP of corporate PR Jennifer Glass Senior director of internal communications Donna Uchida VP of product and services communications Kristin Hollins VP of analyst relations Peggy O'Neill VP of customer references Pamela Truswell

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