MARKET FOCUS: Corporate high five

Paul Cordasco looks at how five flagship in-house PR teams make a difference.

Paul Cordasco looks at how five flagship in-house PR teams make a difference.

FedEx The standard bearer Communications staff 140 worldwide Agency Ketchum At FedEx, corporate reputation is a multifaceted concept. Reputation is not a static side effect of doing business on a grand scale. Instead, it's seen as the company's most precious off-balance asset that allows the company to do business on a grand scale. Corporate reputation is something FedEx claims it can lean on in times of trouble, or use to forge ahead into new markets in times of prosperity. "Corporate reputation can be a life preserver during a crisis, and a tail wind when you're on the offensive," says SVP of worldwide communications and IR Bill Margaritis. "For example, if one of our planes goes down, we want to have a strong reputation so the public gives us the benefit of the doubt that we'll handle it properly. Conversely, when we go to Wall Street with a new idea or product line, we already have credibility with investors that we'll execute." Reputation management at FedEx is seen as a core business function. Like sales, operations, advertising, or information technology, reputation management is a results-oriented side of the business that management expects to be a key driver of the company's success. "Using our reputation - both on offense and defense - allows us to measure our results in a very simple way, and report those up to management," says Margaritis. "Management at FedEx sees us directly aligned with business objectives, and they can see what we do - so they can measure the ROI." Margaritis also says that he's learned that the cornerstone of successful reputation management tends to run counter to what many in his profession believe and are taught. "Our goal is to win inside before we win outside," explains Margaritis. "Too many communicators put too much focus on the outside, and then report their results back inside. The first step is to win the game inside, and that means making sure your program is working in sync with your company's internal goals and expectations. That's the way to become a core strategic asset to your company." General Motors The sum of the parts Communications staff 450-500 worldwide Agency Hass MS&L, plus numerous other agency relationships GM's VP of communications Steve Harris heads a small army of PR pros, so when he took the helm in 1999, he knew he had some rearranging ahead. "It's a big, complex place with lots of stuff going on," says Harris. "Historically, every unit had been left to run independently. Prior to my arrival, I spoke with management about getting some control, consistency, and focus. That's hard when everyone does their own thing, and in many cases it even meant competing with one another." Harris' first focus was to reconnect GM's several disparate car brands with their corporate parent. He inherited a structure in which each operating unit had its own distinct communications team that reported to the head of that particular unit. And there was no reporting line back to GM. Harris' restructuring ensured each unit would report back to the parent company. He says this led to a consistency of message that was lacking. "It took a couple of years to pull it all together, but it's helped us get greater focus and unity," says Harris. "Instead of having six or seven organizations, each with their own press materials and programs, we've been able to leverage off each other. It's given us an economy of scale that has helped us from a budgetary standpoint." Perhaps Harris' biggest focus has been an employee communications plan that looks to give workers a better sense of where they fit into the corporate parent's grand plan for success. "We want everyone to have a sense of what we're trying to do," says Harris. "We've worked to get a strong dialogue going with employees." Diebold The convergence believer Communications staff 19 Agency Dix & Eaton To many in the corporate PR world, "convergence" is just another buzzword. It's something many give lip service to. Some may even implement it in bite-sized pieces within their organizations. Yet a few, like Don Eagon, VP of global communications and IR at automated-products manufacturer Diebold, have embraced the idea of complete communications convergence with zeal. At Diebold, disciplines such as media relations, IR, and employee relations operate in one communications apparatus. "I'm not saying that our model is for every company," says Eagon. "But I think we do things that companies operating with separate communications silos could not. The efficiencies alone make it worthwhile." At Diebold, the communications staff sits in an open area that is not unlike a newsroom. It's a place where a quick and impromptu meeting - between and within communications teams - is not a rare occurrence. The entire communications organization has frequent meetings, where each separate group can gain an understanding of what it is the other groups are doing. "You get a chance to get caught up and know what all of your colleagues are working on," says Eagon. "It's important because you never know when somebody will be out sick one day, and you'll be asked to stand in at the last minute." Beyond the benefits that convergence bestows on the organizations that implement it, it's also a boon for the professionals working within that organization. At Diebold, virtually all communications employees will eventually spend time working in nearly every area of Diebold's communications. It's a chance to master several distinct disciplines in a relatively short period of time. "It's good for my staff from the point of view of polishing their careers," says Eagon. "I'd like to hope they stay here at Diebold, but they're going to have a great package to sell if they think it's time to move on." JetBlue Airways The brand that PR built Communications staff 3 Agencies None While many marketing professionals still see PR as an add-on that can lend support to a marketing push, but cannot spear brand building, JetBlue Airways' short corporate life stands that theory on its head. When Gareth Edmondson-Jones was hired away from tycoon Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic in 1999 to work as head of PR for JetBlue, the upstart was facing a daunting challenge: Take a $10 million marketing budget, and use it to fill planes departing from 12 cities along the Eastern part of the US. Considering that amount could easily be rounded off the budgets of larger carriers, JetBlue had little choice but to start marketing itself through PR. "[$10 million is] not a lot of money when you're trying to launch a new consumer brand - you can run through it very quickly," explains Edmondson-Jones. "When we came here, we came with PR in mind. We knew that almost everything we did had to create a buzz." Cultivating that buzz began early. Before 1999, the track record of start-up low-fare carriers was spotty at best - Southwest being the exception to the rule. "We realized that no one wants to fly an airline they have never heard of," he says. "Seven months before we started running ads and eight months before we started flying, we did everything we could to get as much ink as possible." The plan worked. Between July and December of 1999, JetBlue generated a significant amount of coverage - months before its first flight even departed. It had laid the foundation for a brand through free media and so-called "buzz." Nevertheless, such feats are not achieved without sweat and tears, especially when the initial corporate communications department is a one-man operation. "The first year wasn't easy," recalls Edmondson-Jones. "It was like shoveling coal." Ernst & Young The reputation defender Communications staff Approx. 50 worldwide Agencies H&K (marketing and b-to-b) Fleishman-Hillard (global positioning), plus several smaller agencies It's been tough for the accounting profession in recent months. After years of domination by a handful of big blue-chip firms, recent corporate auditing scandals have shaken the public's faith in something that was previously barely an afterthought. Corporate auditing had been viewed as a commodity profession that compensated with consistency for what it lacked in flash. But events at Tyco, Enron, and WorldCom changed all that for good. Now the formerly faceless major firms must position themselves in this new world. "Prior to any of the scandals emerging, there was very little differentiation between the 'big five' firms in the mind of the public," says Lawrence Parnell, director of global PR. "Lots of people can name the CEOs of five or six large companies, but almost no one can name one head of the major auditing firms. So the problem is that the low-profile and behind-the-scenes approach these firms had taken for years led to lack of differentiation that hurt all of us when the problems arose at Andersen." Yet acknowledging this new reality was the easy part for Parnell and E&Y. The next step was developing a strategy to address it. "We spent a good part of two years - along with our management - really defending our reputation," says Parnell. "That meant dealing with issues and challenges affecting the profession, and realizing we needed to step out as a firm and address these issues with our own voice," explains Parnell. "That means using PR more for positioning than we had in the past." That effort recently took a step back when questions arose about a tax shelter that E&Y accountants engineered for some telecom execs. Still, Parnell is not deterred. "The climate has not changed, and we feel we need to continue to respond to that," he says. "And PR is going to lead that effort, and become higher-profile in our organization."

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