Newsmaker: Kelli Parsons, Fannie Mae

Utilizing a proactive and transparent comms strategy, Fannie Mae's SVP and CCO managed to resurrect the organization's image and win back praise from the media.

Utilizing a proactive and transparent comms strategy, Fannie Mae's SVP and CCO managed to resurrect the organization's image and win back praise from the media.

Fannie Mae had some good news to spread in spring 2013. The mortgage finance company reported pre-tax income of $8.1 billion in the first quarter of the year on the heels of a $17.2 billion profit in fiscal year 2012, a record for the company.

It even received praise from the press when its billions of dollars in repayments to the Treasury Department helped to cut the federal deficit.

It's a far cry from 2008 when Fannie Mae and fellow financial services organization Freddie Mac were taken into conservatorship by the federal government and critics accused both firms of causing the financial crisis of that year and the Great Recession.

It's up to Fannie Mae SVP and CCO Kelli Parsons to ensure the press is talking about the role the company is now playing in the housing market's recovery and its payments to taxpayers instead of what she calls its “legacy issues” from the past decade. A key strategy: staying on offense, especially now that Fannie Mae is back in the black.

“Moving to profitability last year gave us more ways to tell our story. It made us highly relevant again to people, and then we really accelerated our progress story,” Parsons says. “[2012 was] our most profitable year ever, and it gave us the opportunity to communicate even more forcefully that we are repaying taxpayers and we recognize that the taxpayer made a significant investment in this company to keep it alive during the crisis.

Fannie Mae, SVP and CCO, leading communications, marketing, engagement, and community investment

Warburg Pincus, VP of global communications and marketing

Hill & Knowlton, most recently as EVP and GM of H&K New York. Previously DC office leader and director of corporate practice

Various roles at different companies as a TV news reporter. Began in 1991 at WPSD Local 6 in Paducah, KY, before moving to WSMV in Nashville, TN , in 1993. Joined WA VE 3 TV, based in Louisville, KY, in 1994, before taking a job with KHOU-TV in Houston in 1997

“We went on offense in some ways immediately [in late 2010] in the sense that we needed to correct inaccuracies or misunderstandings about the company.

“That said, certainly when we were in a position of losing money, we were not as proactive and there were certainly days when we managed issues when there was a need to defend the company,” she explains. “Under my watch, we've been proactive from day one. It's essential that people have an honest, current view of Fannie Mae. It's more of a ‘just the facts' approach, so people understand the facts about us.”

In many ways, that's easier said than done. Fannie Mae has a unique and complex business structure, complicated even in today's world of multinational conglomerates.

Simplified messaging
Parsons and her team have to explain the role the government-sponsored entity plays in the housing market and the economy at large, not to mention the ins and outs of its oversight by the federal government.

With that in mind, the company has boiled down its mission to a few bite-sized statements. On Fannie Mae press releases, instead of paragraphs of minutiae-filled boilerplate statements, they find the following sentence: “Fannie Mae enables people to buy, refinance, or rent a home.”

“Everyone in the company can connect what they do every day to one of two [priorities],” Parsons adds. “[They can say] ‘my work contributes to the recovery or it contributes to the technologies, business practices, or activities that will make the housing system more sustainable going forward.'”

The differences between Fannie Mae and most corporations do not end there.

Fannie Mae's Washington, DC, headquarters is a working office to be sure, but has the look of a tourist attraction. The Colonial Revival-style building is tucked away in the district's Cathedral Heights section near the Sidwell Friends School.

Unlike most for-profit businesses, a portion of Fannie Mae's profits go to the federal government in the form of reimbursements. It also creates advertising only to help consumers know their options and not for branding. The company does not have a PR AOR, but works with firms on a project basis.

Focus on CSR

Fannie Mae detailed much of its2012 CSR work, which included educational efforts for hundreds of thousands of at-risk borrowers, in a progress report released in April.

In initiatives approved by the company's regulator, it provided foreclosure-prevention counseling for more than 215,000 at-risk borrowers, which it said helped more than 65,000 families avoid foreclosure.

More than 6,700 homeowners also received post-foreclosure counseling, and more than 38,000 potential homebuyers took part in pre-purchase education. The company also acquired more than 4,000 foreclosed properties and rehabilitated more than 2,400 houses.

This year, the company instigated a week-long CSR program called 7 Days to Serve. The initiative ran from June 9-15 and included projects with a housing theme.

With these complications, Fannie Mae's communications team focuses on talking about its recent positive upturn and the work it does to help consumers buy or stay in their homes. Parsons says her group has to worry less about prior hurdles, such as the company's 2010 delisting from the New York Stock Exchange, the Securities and Exchange Commission's 2011 civil charges against former CEO Daniel Mudd, or its role as a punching bag in recent elections.

“It's important to do our very best with the things we can control or influence in an appropriate way, and not to let the other things get us down,” she explains. “Most of the negative coverage of the company – there's little now; it's moved to positive or balanced reports – is focused on legacy issues. At times, we need to address that.

“We don't tell people [financial troubles] will never happen again, but we do quantify the actions we have taken to remove much of the risk in the company.” Parsons, who previously served as head of global communications and marketing at private equity firm Warburg Pincus after a decade at Hill & Knowlton, says she classifies jobs by how much fixing, maintaining, and building is involved in the position. 

Rebuilding the comms unit
Noting that she has little interest in a role solely “maintaining” a company's communications, Parsons explains that her position at Fannie Mae requires her to fix things that were broken and build out the company's communications function.

This includes rebuilding the team's confidence so it can take on the challenges facing it. “When the company went into conservatorship, it stopped communicating as extensively. So a top priority when I got here was to assess the team, enable the people that stayed with us to grow professionally, build their confidence back up, and be communicators again,” she explains.

“And then we needed to attract some new top talent to the company and restructure the communications function.”

Since Parsons joined the team in August 2010, Fannie Mae has tried to increase transparency among its workforce with a digital focus, using the Fannie Mae Progress website to track financial development. To that end, the business also employed executive blogs, a revamped intranet, and an employee-recognition program that rewards model behavior. Parsons also conducted a full assessment of its communications team to help current employees mature and add new personnel to the team.

A second priority after Parsons joined the organization – shortly after it was delisted from the NYSE – was to rebuild its relationship with the media, which in turn helped stakeholders understand the changes taking place at Fannie Mae. Since most of the company's work is b-to-b, it has focused on business media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and CNBC.

“She takes a thoughtful, methodical, and strategic look,” says Fannie Mae corporate communications VP Maureen Davenport, who has worked with Parsons at both her current company and also at H&K.

“Even in really tense moments when we need to take action clearly, she has the unique ability to step back and make sure we have considered all of the potential options and whether this is the right path forward.” Davenport explains that although Fannie Mae had a small window for introducing then-incoming CEO Tim Mayopoulos last year, it conducted a comprehensive rollout that tied the announcement to the organization's larger business strategy. “Kelli joined Fannie Mae when we were losing billions of dollars a year. We recently reported record pre-tax income of $8.1 billion for the first quarter of 2013. Under Kelli's leadership, communications is a strategic component of our turnaround,” explains Mayopoulos.

“As we fixed the company and began the path back to profitability, she authored a strategy and message to lead change, foster common purpose among our employees, and communicate our remarkable progress.” After covering crises from Hurricane Andrew to the humanitarian crisis in Sarajevo as a TV news reporter, Parsons' work at H&K included providing counsel to clients including the nation of Pakistan and onetime tech giant Compaq during a 10-year tenure at the agency.

More than 2,000 employees volunteered approximately 24,000 hours of their time last year for Fannie Mae's Help the Homeless initiative.

Parsons says she learned how to manage a business during her time at H&K, eventually running the agency's Washington, DC, and New York offices. She joined Warburg Pincus as its VP of global communications and marketing in 2008. There, Parsons had to explain the role of the company and differentiate it from others in a sometimes hostile media environment. She also managed marketing at Warburg and worked with members of the board of directors and other executives to help them understand the value of communications when faced with challenges.

Providing the best counsel
“It was important to help people understand the value the firm brought because private equity, like most areas of financial services, was under attack,” she says. “Part of my remit at Warburg was to differentiate it from others and show that the company was a growth investor.”

Parsons adds that her experience on the agency side counseling executives on how to rebuild businesses would come in handy years later. Prominent H&K clients during Parsons' tenure were the US-Arab Economic Forum, VeriSign, and the London 2012 Olympics bidding committee.

“Being able to work with clients who had really significant challenges and having the responsibility and courage to provide them with my very best counsel, and to see the outcomes of that, was an extraordinary experience and one that I call on when I advise our CEO today,” she explains.

Paul Taaffe, then chairman and CEO of H&K and now head of communications at Groupon, praised Parsons' efforts on the HP account. “The world of communications doesn't always breed people with the highest integrity, but she has amazing integrity,” he says, adding that she built loyalty from colleagues and clients alike.

Org Chart: Lean and mean in-house team handles Fannie Mae's communications initiatives

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