CORPORATE CASE STUDY: 'Spirit of Service' guides Qwest's new PR journey

Once limited by in-house politics, Qwest's PR team has been buoyed by new CEO Dick Notebaert's mission to brand the company as one that puts service to customers and staff above all else.

Once limited by in-house politics, Qwest's PR team has been buoyed by new CEO Dick Notebaert's mission to brand the company as one that puts service to customers and staff above all else.

Qwest was in a world of hurt when new CEO Dick Notebaert arrived in June. The company was mired in accounting scandals and federal investigations, and the telecommunications industry suffered from over-capacity and over-investment. So one of Notebaert's first acts upon his arrival was salvaging Qwest's corporate communications. "Our world centers, starts, and ends around the customer," says Notebaert. "Everything we do is around the customer. And you must be able to communicate with your customers, and through a spirit of service, meet their needs. Every employee and every associate has to understand what page of the hymnal we are on - and what line of the hymn we are on - in order to have a consistent, articulate message." From long-term strategy to crisis and internal communications to community outreach, "Spirit of Service" is the mantra at Qwest these days, as well as the name of its marketing and branding campaign. Notebaert believes in this to his core, and communications is vital in getting everyone from employees to investors to buy into it. Because if Notebaert talks about the "Spirit of Service," but employees and associates don't follow through, it will ring hollow. "We're a large company, so this communications effort needs to be totally integrated in all forms, from things printed about us to employee meetings," asserts Notebaert. "Everything must truly reflect who we are. Who we are is our brand, and every employee has to live the brand. It goes beyond an ad company that gives you a nifty flavor of the month." It helps when your communications department isn't hog-tied. When Qwest acquired US West in June 2000, corporate communications no longer answered to the CEO. It had to go through the legal department, making communications "80% reactive, 20% proactive," says Tyler Gronbach, corporate communications VP. He adds that such a hierarchy made it hard to stay ahead of the developing news stories that tarnished the company's image. "You're limited in what you can say" when under the purview of the legal department, explains Gronbach. "They had a lot of scrutiny and review of what the company was saying." But that ended last June with the arrival of both Notebaert and his fellow Ameritech colleague Joan Walker, who Notebaert appointed EVP of corporate communications. A new comms beginning "Everything really changed with Dick's arrival," says Walker. "His style has always been to be open and transparent and timely with all communications. In order for that to happen, the communications has to be strategic." It was no longer good enough for communications to just react to the painful realities of the economy and the industry. It also had to play a much larger, more active role in Qwest's business strategy. The communications team has come far in the last six months of 2002, but it's not a race, says Walker. There's no finish line. Instead of running behind the management, always struggling to keep up, the corporate communications team now finds itself keeping pace. "We're always poised and ready to pounce on a reactive basis," explains Walker. "We'll always have the opportunity to react. What I'm talking about is driving the strategic goals, and getting out in front of the stories." In order to do that, Walker has had to make good use of the resources at her disposal, but that doesn't include additional financial resources. She's had to work with the current budget of a couple million dollars annually. And while she says she supports and appreciates the help of PR firms, no one understands how the company must work with its constituencies as well as its own staff. So Qwest shed many agency relationships, including Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide after five years. Steve Hammack, senior director of corporate communications, says the team no longer views everything as a potential crisis, but as an opportunity. "From my perspective, there's been a shift from crisis management to brand promotion and brand protection," says Hammack. "We're focusing more on the brand and the promise of the brand. The key issue is maintaining a critical balance between getting the issue out there and protecting ourselves." Notebaert's arrival was a "cleansing," says Ted Chamberlin, senior network analyst with advisory firm Gartner. "A lot of people did not communicate well with analysts and the press. But that cloud lifted when Dick arrived. There has been much better interaction. Qwest has gone back to the fundamentals in communicating. They've done a good job addressing issues such as paying down debt, raising bond ratings, and promoting services." It starts with the staff That desire to proactively restore the brand to its former glory is best found in Qwest's dedication to its employees, and its rededication to the communities it serves. The "Spirit of Service" campaign, which imbues everything from ads to Notebaert's meetings with editorial boards, was inspired by a staffer who has 127 years of service to Qwest in his family. So a campaign that focuses on the generation of service often starts with Qwest's own employees. "We have 53,000 employees," says Walker. "No amount of Harvard business strategy will make a plan work. All your employees must passionately embrace it. And it's not just the 'what,' but the 'why' behind the campaign." Emily Harrison, senior director of internal communications, stresses the importance of making sure employees understand the "direction and goals of the business, so that what they do every day impacts the company's success." That's why the first audience that much of the communications reaches is the employees, so they don't find out what their company is doing in the press, and feel like they're out of the loop. Prior to Notebaert's arrival, communications to employees rarely made it beyond individual business units, and overall internal communications was not aligned. "Employees need to be respected and valued," asserts Harrison. "Communications helps them understand their contributions to the business. While you don't want to inundate employees with information that isn't important, it's critical to what we do as a business to have employee involvement and support. You can't deliver on the "Spirit of Service" promise until the employees understand what you're trying to do." Qwest has also revitalized its community outreach. The Qwest Foundation, the company's philanthropic arm, hadn't been funded since 1999. Qwest hasn't only given the foundation a financial boost, it has also hired Joni Baird to oversee community relations. "By not being involved in the community, there was a big disconnect with our customers," says Baird, Qwest's first VP of community relations. "By getting involved again in our communities, by doing the right thing, we help build healthier communities, and that builds healthier businesses. And this links back to our employees. We won't be able to give money away like we used to. So we'll look to get involved in other ways, such as volunteering. "This is part of the communications team," adds Baird. "We're doing the same thing as other parts of the communications team. It's just a different perspective that we bring." As Qwest's corporate communications team faces a new year rife with challenges and opportunities, Notebaert stresses how "Spirit of Service" will continue to play a pivotal role in everything the company does, including communications. "You can't go to church on Sunday, and then be a sinner the rest of the week," stresses Notebaert. "You have to live this every day of the week. Just as our customers' needs change every day, the communications group has to change every day in response to that. We must be in step with our customers." ------ PR contacts EVP of corporate comms Joan Walker VP of corporate comms Tyler Gronbach Senior director of corporate comms Steve Hammack Director of industry analyst relations John Morgan Senior director of strategic comms Bill Myers Senior director of media relations Kate Varden Senior director of media relations Barbara Faulhaber Director of strategic comms Skip Thurman Director of executive comms and brand voice Judy Keene Director of corporate media relations Chris Hardman VP of corporate social responsibility Joni Baird Senior director of internal communications Emily Harrison PR budget roughly $2 million/year

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