NetApp finds strength in collaboration

The company's rare PR-HR union has bolstered employee morale and its external branding efforts

Though often treated as different worlds, ultimately PR and HR both deal with the complex psychology of perception. Yet traditionally, companies keep these functions distinctly separate, even imposing different communications standards on each.

PR works strategically to win the public's good will, while HR's messaging is driven by company policy, sometimes without regard to impact on the brand's internal perception.

Yet executive managers at Network Appliance (NetApp) decided that the company's nearly 7,000 employees could be the strongest voices for telling its story and looked for a way to engage them as advocates. The result was an initiative directing the company's marketing and HR departments to collaborate on internal communications and use the strategic tactics that are usually reserved for public outreach.

By integrating brand messaging with the inner workings of the company, NetApp executives hoped to build a robust internal comms function. But cascading the functions of two departments with very different cultures turned out to be a bumpy endeavor.

"When I was first told to make it work, I thought this is going to be a nightmare," says Eric Brown, senior director of corporate relations at NetApp. "HR people have radically different goals than marketing people."

The first attempt at drafting a collaborative communications model was disaster-fraught with boundary issues as the two departments grappled with who should take the lead. When the team presented the draft to the CEO, he said it fell short of the collaborative function he envisioned.

"He said HR and marketing need to cooperate in way that we never have had to before and he expected a new proposal within two days," Brown recalls.

Kathy Hennessy, senior director of organization effectiveness in the company's HR department, says after the first model's failure, it was clear they had come to an impasse.

"We had to evolve the model. It was too old and archaic," she notes. "And we had to collaborate around really touchy issues."

What followed was a hybrid model that clearly marked which department would take the lead on each initiative, while still leaving room for the other to give feedback. Marketing took on projects to refocus news about NetApp's financial results, image, and products for an internal audience. HR led the way on campaigns about the company's culture, staff profiles, and staff interviews.

The two departments now meet every two weeks to identify the most vital stories and themes for the company's business, as well as to determine how to frame those in a way that's compelling and relevant for staff.

The turf wars have since petered out, allowing the departments to leverage each other's strengths, especially to soften the blow when faced with delivering negative information.

When NetApp didn't meet revenue expectations in its most recent quarter, Hennessy and Brown held a meeting with its CEO to figure out how to convey news that they knew would dampen the company spirit.

"We wanted to make sure that we dealt with the emotional side of what people are feeling," Brown says. "And this is an example of the synergy of HR and PR. HR must motivate the heart, while marketing has to motivate the mind."

Because much of NetApp's compensation model is based on stock, morale follows the curve of the stock price. When a company fails to meet goals, it plants doubt about the feasibility and attainability of these targets.

"When you tell employees they need to gear up for 30% growth and you get 22%, that's still phenomenal growth, but there is that gap of expectations," Brown explains.

The newly integrated team developed a list of action items for the staff to do, preventing them from feeling powerless.

"We can get people through the change curve to focus on what the actions should be," he adds.

After a year of working jointly, both sides say that despite initial hurdles, the collaboration has strengthened the company's messaging and branding to both its internal and external audiences.

"The biggest challenge was a lot of internal hurdles around [whether] a PR guy do something other than PR," Brown says. "And the answer is yes because I don't consider myself a PR person, I consider myself to be a strategic communicator."

While they don't work together on every project, the effort has given both departments a broader and more consistent view of the company's messaging and timing. "I couldn't imagine going back to two distinct functions," Hennessy says.

Elisa Steele, VP of corporate marketing at NetApp, says the hybrid approach allowed both departments to seize opportunities that might have been otherwise lost.

"The greatest reward has been to see the team produce high-impact results - results they acknowledge could not have been accomplished 'on their own,'" Steele notes.

At a glance

Company: Network Appliance

CEO: Dan Warmenhoven

President: Tom Mendoza

Revenues: $2.8 billion (FY2007)

Competitors: EMC, HP

PR/Marketing budget: Undisclosed

Key trade titles: eWeek, Computerworld, CRN, NetworkWorld, Storage, VARBusiness

Marcomms team:
Elisa Steele, VP of corporate marketing;
Eric Brown, senior director of corporate relations;
Kathy Hennessy, senior director of organization effectiveness;
Francesca Karpel, senior strategist, internal communications, marketing;
Cece Waters, senior strategist, internal communications, HR

Marketing services:
PR agency: Voce Communications
Ad agency: formal review underway

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