Like many communications executives, Peter Thonis first honed his storytelling skills by working in journalism as a city editor for a newspaper. Today, along with a team of about 200 associates, he spearheads communications strategies as CCO at Verizon, a business that, in turn, facilitates communications between its 130 million customers.
Before Thonis landed at Verizon, he worked with some heavy hitters in the tech field. In the mid to late 1990s, he held VP posts in communications and marketing at BBN, the company credited with sending the first email and developing the ARPANET, the beginning of what would become the Inter-net. Prior to that, he spent 14 years at IBM.
It is clear Thonis is energized by the rapid change and speed of communication and effectively connecting with the right constituency, one that has evolved over his decades-long career.
At IBM, business customers and investors were his two biggest audiences, with regulators and employees high on the list, as well.
"It used to be very simple," he explains. "You had The Wall Street Journal, Business- Week, Fortune, Forbes, and maybe Computer-world and you were done. Now that's a fraction of what you have to do. And you're not doing it with bigger staffs as far as communications goes and always with tight budgets."
And while the advent of social media might have opened up the floodgates of communications for a consumer-facing business such as Verizon, Thonis insists it has actually given him more control over messaging.
"We had this belief 10 or 20 years ago that we were in control of the message, but we never were," he notes. "A reporter would call me at 3pm and had already done a lot of research and talked to a lot of people. He said, 'We have reason to believe blank, blank, and blank,' and I would have to come up with the right response, usually with a story three-quarters written already. Now I can tell when something is gathering steam or isn't really important. I can tell when we have to start engaging ourselves. I have people on my team who have tens of thousands of people following them online."
Verizon, CCO (2006-2011); previously SVP of external comms
GTE, VP of external comms (GTE merged with Bell Atlantic to form Verizon)
BBN, VP of comms, previously VP of marketing (BBN was purchased by GTE)
IBM, several senior comms posts, including worldwide PR director for PC business units
Verizon's communications team orchestrates myriad consumer PR touch points across its brands, including FiOS and the wireless business, and streams content to consumers via blogs, podcasts, videos, Facebook, and Twitter.
"What we learned from social media is that it's never one way," explains Thonis. "If you think you will only communicate to customers on Twitter, you will fail."
Last month, Verizon launched two social media properties, each in English and Spanish, on Facebook and Twitter. The Facebook fan page Somos Verizon FiOS (We Are Verizon FiOS) and the Twitter handle @SomosFiOS provide information on Verizon technology, plus culturally relevant entertainment and community content. These are in addition to www.EnciendeteFiOS.com, a bi- cultural informational site with versions in English and Spanish.
Audience means different things within Verizon. Its business customer is international, the wireless business is nationwide, and its wireline consumer is in about 15 states. The next evolution of customer communications will incorporate geo-specific elements such as local advertising.
Thonis, who reports to Verizon president and CEO Lowell McAdam, and his team also seek to bring more targeted information to employees as part of a revitalization of its corporate internal online offering.
Polls of some of Verizon's 200,000 employees showed a need for more geo-targeted communications. A New York employee needs wireless and wireline news, but one in Missouri only needs information for the business side of the wireline market.
"The Intranet should be everyone's home page," says Thonis. "If you really do it well, email and Google should be part of that. We're not quite there yet, but that is where we want to go."
Having easy access to information is clearly a priority. On Thonis' desk and credenza alone are two computers, a laptop, iPad, BlackBerry, and about a half-dozen smartphones and cellphones.
An event that required quick and clear communication within the company's management team was the strike by 45,000 Verizon workers this past summer. It also garnered a lot of local media attention.
Thonis' philosophy for handling the strike was to have a very small set of people leading communications and making sure the rest of the team remained focused on telling Verizon's overall story, especially since the strike only involved a portion of the US.
"When I am working with reporters and bloggers on an issue like that, I have zero tolerance for mistakes," he says. "I don't want glowing stories, but I want balance. We did a good job getting that balance because we just refused to let things drop." Thonis adds that he took issue with media disseminating inaccurate information provided by union leaders without doing any due diligence to verify its authenticity.
During the strike, his team maintained a very robust microsite that served as a vehicle to counter false statements in the media and to post videos and statements clarifying what the company's goals were and expressing corporate points of view on bargaining.
While the Verizon team has proven its skill at communicating via digital and online channels, at the end of the day Thonis believes social media is a single tool in a communications arsenal just like any other. But he is very intrigued by how it is evolving and what that will mean for its effectiveness.
Fit to lead
Thonis is a fitness fanatic. He can bench press 330 pounds and has done so competitively. Climbing the 54 flights to his apartment is a regular routine. He is also an avid outdoorsman and loves skiing.
"I do moguls. The steeper the better. I don't do double blacks, but I do most black diamonds. I don't mind falling," he laughs.
Photos adorning his office walls testify to his love of travel. One trip that left a profound impression was a hike with his brother to Montana's Mann Gulch where a dozen smokejumpers perished in a fire in 1949.
"There were no trails, no people," he recalls. "It was July and about 106 degrees. We saw rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bald eagles. Our legs were rubber. We'd just about had it when we started to see the crosses erected for the fire jumpers. It was moving. I've done a lot of climbing, but there was a story behind this place."
"We shouldn't even call it social media," asserts Thonis. "I don't even know what that means. There is nothing social about it. It used to be social media when it was college kids on Facebook." On Facebook, he is followed by friends, family, coworkers, media, and the friends of each of those constituencies. It's at the point where, he jokes, "There is never any way I will put anything personal on Facebook, ever. It's the universe."
Such insights have come to be valued by executives who have interacted with Thonis.
"My first encounter with Peter was via conference call," recalls Mary Beth Bardin, who Thonis reported to at GTE and at Verizon when she was EVP, public affairs and communications. "He had recently joined GTE. His energy came through the phone. He had confidence, but no swagger. He didn't take himself too seriously, but he knew his stuff. Peter is not only smart and strategic, he makes work fun. People like to be around him. He inspires their confidence and always comes through. That is his winning combination."
Education and being a mentor are also big parts of Thonis' life. His mother was a teacher, as is his daughter. He serves as vice chairman of NYC Outward Bound, a nonprofit that operates schools in the city. In addition, Thonis is an adjunct professor of communications at New York University.
One piece of advice he has for young people is to learn everything they can about how their organization functions. "It sounds simple, but most people don't do that," he notes.
Thonis' passion for his work is as strong today as it was at the start of his career. "I believe in having a job you love," he says. "And I don't mean like, I mean love."