Brown leads comms charge for Yahoo comeback

Yahoo's head of communications Eric Brown takes on the arduous task of making the company relevant in a landscape that has become increasingly competitive.

For Eric Brown, SVP of global communications at Yahoo, 2010 is all about moving on from the tumult the company faced this past year and starting to execute on strategy.

"We have passionate users, but a lot of those 600 million-plus users don't know what we stand for anymore," he admits. "A lot of our 13,000-plus employees don't know."

At what exact point Yahoo lost its way isn't clear, but the Silicon Valley icon spent most of 2009 trying to steer back on course. Last year, Yahoo named a new CEO, Carol Bartz, a move followed by layoffs and internal shakeups. In September, it unveiled "It's You," a $100-million-plus branding campaign to boost its audience and reconnect with users.

Since Brown joined last June, some elements of the communications team stayed intact, while others were gutted and rebuilt.   

For one, the team has grown 15% from last year, with a staff that's about one-third new. Executive communications and digital media were added to the PR mix, while internal communications, analyst relations, and social media were retuned with staff additions, Brown says. 

He describes this rebuilt team as a "hybrid" with in-house capabilities, but it still outsources some responsibilities to agency partners. Since arriving at Yahoo, Brown has embarked on a number of agency reviews.

"I feel really good about where we are now," Brown says. "We have the right budget and the right agency partners."

At first glance, Brown seems like an unlikely person for this job. His career has been mainly in enterprise technology at NetApp and Adaptec. At NetApp, he worked for Elisa Steele, who joined Yahoo as CMO in March and played a role in bringing Brown to Yahoo.

"We have a number of people in marketing and communications with consumer experience," she explains. "Eric brings creativity, innovation, and his global scale. And we've taken on a very global strategy for communications, marketing, and the whole business." 

Unlike at NetApp, when Steele first arrived at Yahoo, PR and marketing had different reporting structures. Because this "seemed foreign" to her, Steele reorganized the team and now Brown reports directly to her.

"It's critical we have a unified strategy," she notes. "Both marketing and communications are about helping people understand your value."

With his internal team in place, Brown is set to refocus on Yahoo's comeback.

"It's not an easy task at Yahoo. We have so many competitors in so many different aspects of our business," he says. "But the key things I care about in terms of metrics haven't changed. And that's our share of voice versus competitors, message pull-through, and resonance."

He's also building a metrics system. "Our business is a numbers business and communications is the last holdout in that it's still about relationships," Brown notes. "I don't want to be the only marketer in the room who can't talk stats, numbers, or pull-throughs."

Even so, when conducting three RFPs last fall, Brown met some resistance about PR's value with Yahoo's procurement department.

"Outsourcing is one thing, but procurement wanted to offshore communications and I said no," he recalls. "They acted as if communications would evolve to become comfortable with off-shoring and I had to explain that's not the case. I don't think saving 5% on an RFP, for example, is worth it because this brand is worth more than billable hours."

Keeping matters in-house
Coming into a company in the midst of a transition was a challenge from a communications standpoint. As Yahoo rebuilt its executive team last year, many of the company's internal memos were leaked to the press, including Brown's gregarious introductory note to his team. He says this leak had "communications DNA" all over it and he swiftly warned the team against the slippery culture that had become commonplace during Yahoo's executive transition.    

"I do think at one time, part of the communications and marketing organization here started to use leaks as communications vehicles unto themselves to plant stories and test trial balloons... but that essentially causes harm to the company," he explains. "Certain things should be kept within the family."

Another issue, adds Brown, was so many of the documents were leaked to Kara Swisher at All Things D. This hurt the team's media relations, he says, because some reporters felt like others were being fed inside documents.

While Bartz threatened to "dropkick" staffers who leak documents, Brown can't guarantee internal memos won't slip into the wrong hands again. Rather, his strategy is to stress why leaks ultimately damage communications' standing to the executive team.

"I've made it clear to my team that when a leak comes from us, executives will look elsewhere to get their message out," he explains. "If they can't trust us with confidential stuff, they'll give it to someone else and we'll get it right before it goes on the wire. That's not what I want my communications job to be."

Brown has started using video for more sensitive internal communications because it takes more effort to copy and leaves a cleaner digital footprint than e-mail. He's also taken to copy-righting confidential internal memos to deter journalists from publishing them.

"It will be interesting to see if a journalist prints material I have a copyright on," he says. "This isn't to get anyone sued; it's just to make a point."

Swisher says she still gets leaked e-mails from Yahoo regularly, but this issue shouldn't be the focus of the communications team.  

"Their level of drama has been so great for the past few years, so that's been the story," she says. "But now the story is can they get back to great products? They can't 'PR' their way back into relevancy. They need to make great products that the PR team can talk about."

Yahoo got a boon when it made a deal with Microsoft to use Bing technology to power searches on its Web pages. For several years now, Yahoo's search market share has fallen dramatically to Google. According to comScore's, US search engine rankings, Yahoo's share of searches fell nearly 1% to 18% in October and down to 17.5% in November.

Brown wants to get the public to reconsider Google's role in Yahoo's brand strategy.

"Yes, Google is hugely successful," he says. "My goal is to have people ask Google, 'How can you compete with Yahoo?' That's not a six-month goal, it'll take awhile."

Brown's plan is show that Yahoo is more than a search engine by giving more attention to its Web tools like instant messenger and e-mail, as well as Flickr and its editorial content.

"It is stupid for anybody in marketing to say they are going to drive all their Web traffic to one product," Brown says. "But we do want to be the center of their online lives."

The company's online engagement numbers are strong, but Facebook outpaces them in growth. According to comScore, in the US Yahoo sites have the largest share of time spent online at 11.2%, followed by Google at 9.1%. But worldwide, Facebook engagement was up 193% from the previous year.

In 2010, the marketing teams plans to continue "It's You," shifting focus from general brand awareness to its set of "hero" products, that include Yahoo's new homepage, e-mail, search, messenger, and mobility products.

"2009 was all about charting a new path from both a brand and product perspective," Brown says. "We intend to take this exponentially further in 2010."

But he stops short of predicting Yahoo's full online domination, saying, "We don't want to be people's only online home. We know that's not realistic."

A busy 2009 for Yahoo:

January: Carol Bartz is named the new CEO

February: Jill Nash, head of comms, leaves. Brad Williams, VP of corporate comms, takes over in the interim

March: Elisa Steele joins as CMO

April: Brad Williams leaves Yahoo

June: Eric Brown joins as SVP of global comms, Yahoo names May Petry VP of corporate comms

October: Yahoo launches "It's You" rebranding campaign

December: Yahoo appoints a combined team from Porter Novelli and Voce Communications as its consumer AOR

Brown's experience

July 2009-present
Yahoo, SVP of global communications

November 2008-June 2009
NetApp, VP of corporate relations October 2004-November 2008
NetApp, senior director of worldwide PR and internal communications November 2002-October 2004
NetApp, director of worldwide PR May 2001-October 2002
NetApp, senior manager of North American and European PR, AR, and marcomms April 2000-April 2001
NetApp, manager of product PR

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