When Google first appeared on the scene, its story was one of a tech upstart. But now it can teach a lesson in how to keep brand integrity through exponential growth.
David Krane is the man who would most likely lose sleep over the following three words: don't be evil.
Any time that Google encounters trouble or courts controversy - whether it's censorship issues in China, click-fraud growing pains, or opposition to its book-digitizing project - the media like to throw those three little words back in the company's face with a harrumph.
As director of global communications and public affairs for Google - and the person often times responsible for setting up those ubiquitous magazine cover stories that hammer home the reminder that Google is the most important young company in the world - it's no stretch to suggest that the three words made famous by Google's founders might sometimes keep him up at night. But they don't.
"We normally see [the phrase] as a parenthetical," Krane says. "It's a common parenthetical, but [does it] torture us or pose a great deal of indigestion? Not really."
Evidenced by Krane's tone and candid responses to questions on various topics, not much seems to cause him or his team indigestion. Google grows by 50 to 100 staffers a week. The PR department, with 72 employees, is at a record high.
Cover stories are important, but what makes Google "Google" is its culture, and, with more than 11,000 employees worldwide and some 5,000 résumés submitted a day, it appears that growth could be the company's largest challenge.
"We made a significant investment in our culture here that distinguishes it dramatically from most commercial environments," Krane says. "Candidly, we're not shy to tell the story because it helps to further one of our objectives - awareness of the workplace - which can be directly correlated to our requirement objectives."
Krane expresses confidence in Google's ability to retain core culture in the face of rapid expansion. But many outsiders, as evidenced by the tone of those cover stories, are less sure.
"[Google is] doing [its] best to try to do that, but once you grow very large, things and systems change," says David Vise, author of The Google Story and senior commentator at BreakingViews.com, adding that cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin no longer meet every new employee. "A lot of people [who've become wealthy from stock options] stay there because it's entrepreneurial and invigorating. If they lose their entrepreneurial culture..."
Given this challenge, the PR team's internal communications focus is an increasingly important factor in what Krane calls a number of "PR buckets." (See "Divide and conquer" sidebar below.)
Elliot Schrage, who joined in 2005 as VP of global communications and public affairs, leads the PR department, reporting to CEO Eric Schmidt. But Krane, in his seventh year at the search giant, is the longest-standing PR person - the institutional memory of the company's history and present.
Thus, Krane can say with first-hand knowledge that internal communications is a much more complex concept than during the nascent days when employee communications was like having a "large family in the living room."
Perhaps the most pivotal part of Google's internal communications is its weekly Thank God It's Friday (TGIF) event. Held since the first days of the company, it has blossomed into a multi-office, global event. (See "Evolution of a meeting" sidebar below.)
Rather than it being a place to merely disseminate corporate information, Krane says Google employees are actively engaged in the meeting. And the meeting is not just held for continuity's sake. Krane says that Schmidt, Page, Brin, or another senior executive will convene the meeting.
"We inject some fun elements, from clever employee-generated video from a field office or discrete team to the goofy costumes executives wear on St. Patrick's Day and Halloween," Krane says.
The meetings, he says, are an efficient way to answer questions and tap into the employee base at a large scale. Krane says the meetings' best moments are unscripted.
"It's great for informal communications," and Google "always allows ample time for Q&A," he says. "Often times, that's where news is created. Someone will ask a question that the community wasn't thinking about."
Magazines focus on Google's culture, in part, because readers are curious about a company that retained its core culture despite going public, and, in part, because Google loves telling that story.
"It's probably easier to talk about the food program and employee benefits than having a detailed discussion about our China policy," Krane admits, adding that the company still discusses and strives to be transparent about the latter.
But the corporate culture message comes across loud and clear in a lot of the cover stories Google has generated. Adi Ignatius, Time's deputy managing editor, talks about the Google story it published in February 2006.
"One thing I put in my story," says Ignatius, "was that Schmidt said [in essence], 'People write about Google, "You're so wacky and you have your lava lamps."' He was quite happy to let the outside world look at them as this goofy, hippyish company that did one thing well: search. They didn't dissuade it. That said, it's also real."
That's not to say that Google is working hard to perpetuate the dot-com image - while it wants stories to focus on its culture, it is vital to get the message across that the culture has changed and matured, and that innovation is at the core of the company.
Google employs a number of innovation "stars" who are attractive interview subjects for the media, such as Vint Cerf, a well-regarded pioneer of the Internet. As such, part of Google's internal communications efforts is to train these people in media relations.
"The primary conversation our employees like to have with the outside world is one of our company's ongoing commitments to [technological] innovation and the products we strive to build," Krane says.
"We're always looking to train the next tier of voices that will represent Google's narrative," he adds. "Many of the people we hire come with a wealth of experience in this area and are naturally qualified [for]speaking."
Of course, a culture that thrives on transparency and a bubbling desire to share information with the world runs the risk of employees straying from corporate governance without proper guidance.
"Something we never lose sight of is [getting] new employees [to] understand the corporate policy and respect for confidentiality," Krane says, adding that Google has a "long tail" of spokespeople.
"We make it extremely easy for [all staffers] to share their perspective and their messaging with external audiences," he notes, "whether it's a media-trained, media-approved spokesperson in the classical sense or an employee who wants to blog on [any] topic he or she chooses."
When it comes to corporate blogging, Krane adds, Google has a sophisticated policy.
"There's even an internal helpline for blogging," he says. "If you keyed out a post on one of the projects you're working on and want a second set of eyes, there's a cross-functional team of people called BlogAdvice that any employee can send an e-mail to, 24 hours a day, saying, 'Hey, I wanted to put this up on my blog, but I wanted to get a second opinion to make sure I wasn't violating any specifics of the employee blogging policy.'"
Krane says Google, which bought the Blogger platform in 2003, would be engaging in an "embarrassing dissonance of sorts" if it didn't encourage blogging. But as evidenced by its policy, it would be a fallacy to mistake Google's open culture with one that does not also try to control the spigot of information.
BreakingNews.com's Vise says the company tried to negotiate his access based on whether he'd show them the manuscript upon completion, a discussion Krane confirmed.
"I turned it down," Vise says. "It had to be an independent book."
Eventually, the company gave Vise most of the access he required, and Vise read the draft manuscript over the phone to Krane, the PR staff, and some other executives - a technique Vise, who previously worked at The Washington Post, says he learned from Bob Woodward.
"The result of that was a better book," Vise says. "They were able to correct factual errors. Other times, they gave me their strong point of view, but each and every case was left up to my decision."
Google gets several large feature and cover story requests each week, making it very much a buyer's market for the search-engine giant. It is a long way from when Google, in its infancy, had a hard time getting coverage at all.
"In the early days, it was a tall order to get computer journalists really 'clueful' and excited about what we were doing," Krane says. "And we tried. We spent a lot of time on that."
A former Google PR employee - who requested anonymity on the grounds that comments made about the company referred to its pre-public days - confirmed that it had an unresponsive media audience in its early days. Despite difficulties, that same employee said that PR was always the most important element and that the company almost never advertised.
"We just had a booth and a computer at conferences where we would show journalists we had a better product," the employee says. "We would call up reporters and tell them to Google themselves. They were blown away."
Krane's team currently is dealing with the communications fallout from the news of Viacom's $1 billion lawsuit against Google subsidiary YouTube for copyright infringement. Krane would not comment beyond pointing to the company's official statement that speaks of the success of its partnerships with other content owners. But he admits there are certain things that can make his job, and that of his team, difficult.
"The constant tension," says Krane, "is trying to meet the inbound demand while not losing sight of the important outbound/ proactive initiatives." And adding to that is the inherent desire for details that comes from a staff that works in the information business.
"This is a culture that thrives on access to information," Krane notes. "It's almost an insatiable work force vis-à-vis what the company is doing, why we do it, and where we're going."
Divide and conquer
Google splits its PR function into five "buckets"
The largest and most resource-intensive part of the PR team's time. Media relations work is broken up into two categories: product- and tech-focused titles, and Google's business story - how it makes money through online advertising and online media and sales to enterprise customers, and works with partners.
Traditional corporate communications
Encompasses financial and executive communications, and the process-orientated aspects of the group, such as maintaining the Google press center, the Google blog, and the 35 company blogs that run through the PR group's supervision. Also included is the Speakers' Center, where the department maintains its public-facing representative relationships and keeps track of who is speaking at what location. The function also supports Google's philanthropic efforts and looks after M&A work and a number of partner communications.
Issues management and public affairs
Comprises a mix of proactive and reactive activities. "A lot of the crisis work is driven out of this group, both for short- and long-term issues," Krane says. Google's DC office works on a lot of these issues. "We have a strong relationship with our legal team and governmental affairs organization and executives," through this function,
Focuses on anything that deals with employee-facing communications. "Each Friday, we have an all-hands meeting here in Mountain View, CA, that all employees in this area are invited to attend." The PR department develops the material, content, and agenda for the meeting. "We echo those meetings at regional offices, led by executives in that region. Our group spends a lot of time coordinating those efforts and sharing information," Krane says.
The disciplines in the four buckets are covered by representatives in Mountain View and on-site at Google's 35 offices worldwide.
Evolution of a meeting
As the company has grown, so has Google's "TGIF" meeting, from a living-room setting into a truly global communications exercise. Here, David Krane explains how the meeting has expanded at different stages of growth.
Employees: Fewer than 100
"The earliest TGIF meetings always took place in an open space within the office and always near food. There's beer and wine served, but the majority chose not to imbibe... it's more about high-quality food. Everyone had a chair, or one of those inflatable exercise balls."
"We're still meeting in a large public space and are not yet using an amplification system. But it's becoming a little more crowded, and some people are sitting on the floor. We used [projection] screens, but they were those scrappy, silver tube ones where you clip the top onto a tripod."
"Still more or less the same meeting space, but now there is a PA system... and the meeting is different [now that] it's amplified. It was more of a living room before. There are folks scattered everywhere, sitting, standing, and peeking out of the perimeter offices... and employees standing on the desks of their colleagues at the back."
Employees: A few thousand
"We [now have] the meeting in the largest food facility on campus. It holds 4,000 or 5,000 people. We introduced a larger screen for displaying slides or videos. It's a serious screen - [about] 60 feet diagonally with a state-of-the-art, high-end projector that has at least 15,000 lumens. These are the tools required to display to a large crowd."