Twitter's ubiquity, rising membership, and still-developing business model present great challenges and opportunities for its first VP of communications. Jason Shuffler reports
One media request encapsulates the challenges and peculiarities of PR at Twitter, the San Francisco-based micro-messaging social media company.
VP of communications Sean Garrett was steeped in serious work concerning Twitter's marketing strategy when he received a media inquiry all in caps.
"I get an urgent request from a large daily publication saying, 'I need comment right away on dogs that tweet,'" recalls Garrett, who politely declined the opportunity to comment on the canine conundrum.
Twitter is an anomaly of sorts. It's a globally recognized brand with over 175 million registered users, but yet it's a company that resembles a startup still ironing out a viable business model. It's a social media-messaging platform celebrated as a revolution in modern media, but it's also a tool with a concrete financial value many still question.
"Twitter can be somewhat polarizing," admits Garrett. "There are people who feel there's not a lot of value, that it's just a bunch of people talking about what they are having for breakfast, or that they are on Facebook and therefore don't need to be on Twitter. That's a big challenge and opportunity for us to explain none of those things are true."
Biz Stone, cofounder and creative marketing lead of Twitter, hired Garrett in February last year to rope this all in and build an internal communications team from the ground up.
When Twitter's service suddenly found itself playing a role in the tumultuous Iranian elections in 2009 and media requests for comment came pouring in, Stone says it became clear the company needed a PR strategy.
"Before Sean joined, we naively thought we would simply answer incoming questions and tweet, blog, or e-mail any important news," says Stone in an e-mail. "My personal phone number was on the website for users, press, or anyone else to call if they had a question."
Prior to joining Twitter, Garrett was at 463 Communications, a firm he cofounded in 2004 that specialized in consulting services for senior-level leaders of tech companies. Twitter was previously a client of 463.
"That was, unfortunately, how Twitter met Sean," says Tim Dyson, CEO of Next Fifteen Communications Group, which invested in 463 and is now its parent company. "I lost him, along with a nice chunk of revenue."
Garrett also held VP stints at Bite Communications and Applied Communications and served as assistant to the director of communications for the office of Gov. Pete Wilson (R-CA) between 1990 and 1992.Golden opportunity
Garrett left 463 because he grew to love Twitter as a service and a company. When the opportunity to be a part of it came up, he couldn't pass. "It's not often you get to build a team and fashion its direction," he explains. "That's amazing, especially for a company with this level of brand awareness and excitement."
The sheer speed of Twitter caught even Garrett by surprise, whether it is engineers punching out code and new products, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visiting the company's office last June and sending his first tweet, or even the service, which is a frenzied, non-stop media platform in itself.
Convention generally says good PR is in front of the message, as opposed to playing catch-up. For a rapidly developing company such as Twitter, operating without strong PR can lead to damaging public misinformation, especially when requests from reporters and bloggers come from all angles.
Dyson says Twitter has the expectations of a brand like Google, but with the resources of a relatively small startup. In many ways, Garrett walked into a situation where he's had to play catch-up fast, with minimal resources. He even had to establish basic PR necessities, such as a media list.
At 463, Garrett hired people that didn't need a lot of handholding, had specialties, and could hit the ground running. Such traits are also a necessity of Twitter's tech startup culture. "We don't do clip reports, daily analysis of the media. We just attack it," says Garrett. "That's what we did at 463. It's what we do here."
Since taking over communications at Twitter, Garrett swiftly hired three members of a PR team of four that report to him. All four have their own areas of focus, including monetization, product communications and tech and consumer press, partner communications, social media, and internal communications.
Garrett avoids giving titles to staff. "Everyone touches all facets of the business," he says, adding that he trusts them to take the initiative with little oversight. That trait, says Dyson, will serve Garrett well at Twitter, a company that is more egalitarian, with internal operating principles that stress transparency and trust.
"Getting ahead of the demand and incoming flow has been our biggest challenge," says Garrett. "We've now started to do that and we can start being more proactive and strategic."
Building a cohesive PR team was Garrett's first hurdle, yet several challenges remain, including the company's recent monetization efforts through the Promoted Accounts and Tweets products it launched last year, internal communications, and continuing to tout Twitter as a valuable utility, not just a novel fad.
Matt Graves, who oversees monetization communications, says the team must confront perceptions the company doesn't know how to make money by continually building awareness about its revenue models and emphasizing its strengths and progress.
For example, when Twitter cofounder Evan Williams stepped down as CEO last October and COO Dick Costolo replaced him, news stories also talked about Twitter's monetization efforts and products, says Graves.Internal messaging
Internal communications must also scale as the company expands. Twitter has grown from roughly 90 employees to more than 300 in the past year. Jenna Sampson, who handles internal communications, says making sure the entire company knows what's going on internally is a priority and speaks to Twitter's operating principles of trust and transparency.
"If we know we are going to make an acquisition, we tell people in advance," explains Garrett. "When we meet about, say, engineering, someone posts notes about that meeting to the entire company."
Twitter itself is a tool the PR team uses for external outreach. They post updates on the Twitter Status blog when service is down and engage in a public conversation with many reporters at once on Twitter to avoid having to talk to them separately. It helps the team save time and keep pace. "Because we and everyone else is moving so fast, that covers us," notes Garrett. "It's just better to have an open and honest conversation with them."
For now, the company's pace is one reason Twitter isn't employing a PR agency. "At this point, that would potentially slow us down," says Garrett. "I want to grow a super strong team that can do the work of agencies."
But Garrett also wants to make sure his team doesn't get wrapped up in the company's hype. Instead, he focuses on driving home a message that Twitter is much more than a fleeting way for people to share up to 140 characters of thought in a social network.
"Our objective is not to make Twitter cool and flashy," says Garrett. "It's to make Twitter an important new communications medium where people know they can get reliable information about the things they care about."
Whether dogs can tweet may or may not be part of that future.Twitter team Jenna Sampson
Start date: May 2009 Focus: social media, internal comms, creative comms Alma mater: YahooCarolyn Penner
Start date: April 2010 Focus: product comms/tech press Alma mater: GoogleMatt Graves
Start date: June 2010 Focus: monetization efforts, major media outlets Alma mater: Real Networks, IMeemJodi Olson
Start date: October 2010 Focus: ecosystem and partner comms, consumer press efforts Alma mater: Kosmix and Text 100
VP of communications, Twitter2004-2010
Cofounder/partner, 463 Communications2003-2004
VP, Bite Communications2001-2003
VP, Applied Communications1999-2001
Senior corporate comms manager, Listen.com1997-1999
Director, tech policy communications, Alexander Communications