Whether noting customers' experiences in person or via the customer service site, MyStarbucksIdea.com, O'Neil keeps customers at the forefront of her mind when shaping the coffee company's global communications platforms.
“Starbucks is a very personal brand,” says O'Neil. “Keeping the customer first in your mind is important... [The work] is all about what [the brand] means to the customer and listening to that] and delivering.”
In her present role, O'Neil crafts and executes global communications strategies to reach consumers, business partners, and shareholders.
“With the variety of projects, clearly, Starbucks is a great brand to work for,” she adds. “It's also wonderful to be at a company that understands the value of PR. Throughout my time here, we haven't spent a lot of money on advertising. A lot of awareness is generated through PR.”
O'Neil has overseen messaging as varied as the promotion of new product lines, such as Pike Place Roast, which launched this April, to the overwhelming consumer response earlier this year after 600 stores were slated to be closed.
“At the time, we were cognizant first for our [employees] and made sure they knew what was happening,” she says. “Starbucks is so ingrained in communities. We wanted to communicate [clearly] to consumers and be responsive to stakeholders.”
O'Neil joined Starbucks in 2006 as director of corporate and issues management and global communications. She has previously spent years working in consumer-facing PR at various entities, such as Westin Hotels and both Seattle pro basketball teams, the NBA's Sonics, who moved to Oklahoma City this year, and the WNBA's Storm.
Her vast experience made O'Neil “the calm, cool, and collected” colleague that Christy Salcido, a former Starbucks colleague and now MD at Emanate PR, remembers.
“Valerie has this spectacular ability to multitask and manage multiple issues coming her way and always maintain her cool,” says Salcido.
From 2000 to 2006, O'Neil's calm under fire was often put to the test in the several senior PR posts she held for the Sonics and Storm.
Rob Martin, a former Sonics colleague and CMO of Imagekind, says O'Neil was a gifted communicator who was always able to give an accurate assessment as to whether action needed to be taken after an inaccurate story was printed.
“When you work with Val, every story has two sides: the reporter's and [the corporation's],” he notes. “Valerie would remind us of the importance of respecting the reporter's side and brought a sense of calm.”
O'Neil credits her experience with the Sonics and Storm for preparing her to join Starbucks' team.
“What I enjoyed was [working on both] the celebrity and intensity of the male NBA experience, looking to sustaining brand awareness and reputation,” she recalls, “and also the WNBA experience, looking to raise awareness through grass roots.
“Similarly, there are different levels of PR strategies in the promotion of [Starbucks'] brand,” adds O'Neil. “Everybody knows Starbucks, but it's also about sustaining brand awareness in new countries and tracking where the brand is headed.”
Starbucks. Began as director, corporate and issues management, global comms. In March 2008, named VP of global comms
August 2003-June 2006
Seattle Sonics and Storm. Senior director of PR and community relations