Sheffer navigates GE challenges with political savvy

Gary Sheffer, GE's VP of communications and public affairs, is helping to build a more skilled team to deal with the myriad messages coming out of the conglomerate.

Gary Sheffer began his communications career as a press aide for New York Governors Mario Cuomo (D) and George Pataki (R). That experience still influences him as VP of communications and public affairs for GE.

"I come from politics and I always use this way to describe what I do," he says. For his corporate communications team, "I look at it as we're the White House; we set the big overall messaging. And then we're working with our colleagues in the businesses, they are sort of like the executive departments." These different businesses include GE Capital, investor relations, NBC Universal (NBCU), and GE's infrastructure group, which in- cludes healthcare, energy, and technology.

Each group within the company has its own communications challenges, and Sheffer says both he and the GE team have learned a lot recently. In the past year, the communications team dealt with issues such as managing the leaked news of Comcast's purchase of NBCU before it was official, telling GE's story about its loan guarantees from the government, and building up communications between CEO Jeff Immelt and investors.

"We're focusing on storytelling, public affairs, and employee communications intensively," Sheffer says, "with more resources and C-suite involvement on a day-to-day basis."

Recently, some of that C-suite interaction revolved around Immelt and investors, many of them upset that GE cut dividends in 2009.

"We did some things we never thought we'd do, including cutting the dividends," adds Sheffer, who helped Immelt with his communications. "When you have to make tough decisions like that, you must be as clear about the reasons for them as you can, and communicate them as quickly as you can."

Yet he believes that speed in communications isn't always the best strategy. "In periods of high volatility, sometimes it's better not to say things with as much certainty as you might in normal times, when you have a longer and better view of what's coming ahead," he says.

A decade of changes
In his 10 years there, Sheffer has seen GE go through many changes, particularly as it went from former CEO Jack Welch to Immelt. The communications function reflects those changes and now focuses on multiple audiences, rather than just targeting business reporters and analysts, including bloggers, public policy influencers, and the public.

Reporting to CMO Beth Comstock, Sheffer has about 30 employees on the corporate team reporting directly to him, with about 300 communicators reporting indirectly to him. Sheffer calls senior leaders - including GE Energy's Jim Healy, IR's Trevor Schauenberg, and NBC Universal's Allison Gollust - his "communications cabinet."

"Gary's done a great job of conveying to GE leaders that communications isn't something you delegate to someone else; it's part of your job, and you must be connected with your communications team," Comstock says.

By working closely with Immelt, Sheffer is able to prove communications' value to the entire company. That influence was expanded in December 2009 when Sheffer was promoted to an officer position. While his role leading communications is still the same, Sheffer now serves as a company leader, offering input and developing strategy for all of GE. This not only recognizes him as an individual, Comstock says, but "continues to validate that communications as a function is very important.

"The real challenge is for Gary to lead the organization forward around storytelling in a 360-degree way," she adds, noting that public affairs and social media are major elements. "A big charter for Gary is to tell stories and make the right connections on a global basis."

GE is using its "amplification room," a different version of a war room, to improve storytelling. Sheffer explains the "amp room" as a "coordinated, daily process to make sure we are gathering, understanding, and telling our story to different audiences." This helped the communications team develop GE Reports, a blog and news site for the company. For 2009, the goal was to develop integration among communications teams and worldwide, and to use that combined knowledge to interact with multiple audiences.

"There are often conflicts between what you want to say to investors, to customers, and in Washington, and that's a difficult process sometimes," Sheffer says. However, he adds, his team is improving in that area.

In April 2008, GE introduced the Com-munications Capability Guide, a tool to help individual employees find their strengths and weaknesses as communicators. After talking to staffers about the program to see how much they learned, Sheffer says the program has been successful and will be updated this year. He also plans to pull from GE's Marketing Gold Standard program to launch a Communications Gold Standard, which looks at the team as a whole and how it can improve, compared to the more individually focused Communications Capability Guide.

"We need to get better about writing for the Web and writing for search," he admits. "We need to understand video better."

Additionally, the team has brought on some external consultants to help in the public affairs arena, including Mercury Public Affairs, which has been working with GE for a little more than a year. Agency MD Brian Jones explains that the company provides surveys and research, as well as message counseling.

GE also works with Edelman as its main PR firm. The two worked together on the launch of the Healthymagination program in May 2009, expanding on the company's successful Ecomagination program that debuted in 2005.

The goals of Healthymagination, which originally targeted leaders in healthcare and government, are to improve cost, quality, and access in healthcare, Sheffer says. Starting in October 2009, GE began consumer outreach for the program, explaining Healthymagination's goals to the average consumer and doing focus groups and surveys.

"Our goal is also to have broader conversation about what healthcare means to doctors, nurses, patients, and families," he explains.

Ben Boyd, EVP and director of the US corporate practice at Edelman, says that the work with Healthymagination is about making sure that GE's message resonates through various stakeholders. He adds that communications has taken on an elevated role at the company and helped such programs.

"Immelt fundamentally understands that all stakeholders need to understand GE's vision, mission, and purpose," Boyd notes. "His push across his leadership team, ensuring that communications leadership gets the time and attention it deserves, has been pretty remarkable over the past couple of years. The function, [with] Beth Comstock and the role Gary has played, has been fundamental in terms of greater clarity around the company."

Communicating to various stakeholders and working on projects across divisions, GE's communications team has a lot to juggle. Plans for 2010 include building up communications skills, working as a team globally, to tell GE's story, and focusing on public affairs and programs like Healthymagination. But Sheffer narrows it all down to one strategy.

"Our function's goal is to enhance the company's reputation and brand and help drive growth," he says. "That strategic plan to connect the dots and put together a communications plan helps the company grow."

Comms challenges at GE:

NBC Universal: Communicating the strategic reasons for the sale to Comcast, as well as informing the public with follow-up information from a regulatory standpoint

Infrastructure and industrial businesses: Continuing to tell GE's story regarding tech and R&D, even while the economy is flat; debuting "more products this year than any other in our history," says Sheffer

GE Capital: Working to be transparent about the challenges in this area; explaining importance of the lending the company does to small- and medium-sized businesses and how it will impact economic growth

Public affairs: Focusing on intersection of business, government, and the public policy arena and the permanent impact it can have

GE, VP of comms and public affairs

GE, executive director, corporate comms and public affairs

GE, manager, comms and public affairs

Gov. George Pataki (R-NY), press aide

Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-NY), press aide

1986-1989 Albany Times Union, reporter

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