From implementing a war room at the telecoms giant to empowering employees, AT&T's SVP of corporate comms aims to connect people on a daily basis. Brittaney Kiefer reports.
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and went on to found the company that would later become AT&T. He wrote at the time: “I believe in the future, a man in one part of the country may communicate by word of mouth with another in a distant place.”
Today, AT&T operates in a world more connected than ever, one that far exceeds Bell's vision. By the end of 2011, the number of mobile phone subscriptions had reached about 6 billion worldwide, and approximately one-third of the world's population use the Internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union. Additionally, smartphone use surpassed 1 billion devices in 2012 and is expected to double by 2015, says research firm Strategy Analytics.
As AT&T strives to be at the forefront of this rapidly evolving landscape, it is Larry Solomon's job as SVP of corporate communications to help explain how the company's services can have an impact on people's lives. His role as a communicator must mirror the giant technological shifts in AT&T's business and in the rest of the telecommunications industry. “We're a large company with a lot of audiences. PR today is more exciting that it's ever been,” says Solomon.
AT&T, SVP corporate communications
Various positions at Fleishman-Hillard. Began as managing supervisor in financial communications and media relations (1994-1995). Named VP in 1995 and SVP in 1996. Promoted to partner in 2000 and then senior partner in 2002
Various posts in corporate communications at SBC Communications (employee communications, financial communications, speech writer, and media relations). SBC was acquired by AT&T in 2006
Oklahoma Bankers Association, director of public relations
He is working for AT&T, the second-largest US wireless carrier, in a uniquely challenging time for telecoms. As demand explodes for more mobile data and faster networks that can accommodate smartphones, carriers such as AT&T are battling over coveted airwave spectrum. That competition fueled AT&T's attempt to purchase its smaller rival T-Mobile USA in 2011, a deal that collapsed under pressure from the government and other wireless carriers. The following year, T-Mobile agreed to acquire MobilePCS Communications to expand its business. Around the same time, another wireless partnership emerged, in which Japanese telecoms giant SoftBank said it will give Sprint a $20.1 billion cash infusion and take majority control of the company.
In January, AT&T agreed to acquire the retail business of Atlantic Tele-Network for $780 million, a deal that will give the carrier more spectrum, licenses, retail locations, and 585,000 new subscribers. AT&T also agreed to a $1.9 billion purchase of additional spectrum from rival Verizon Wireless, and closed its acquisition of NextWave Wireless, a mobile-tech company that holds two bands of spectrum.
The company reported a $3.9 billion loss in fourth quarter 2012 due to pension costs and Hurricane Sandy. Revenue was flat for the period at $32.6 billion. It lagged behind Verizon in signing up subscribers, 780,000 new customers compared to Verizon's 2.1 million in the same quarter. However, it sold more smartphones than Verizon and continues to be the top seller of the iPhone since becoming the phone's first carrier in 2007.
Solomon joined AT&T in 2008, but has been lending his skills to the telecommunications industry for many years. He began his PR career at the Oklahoma Bankers Association before joining former AT&T subsidiary SBC Communications in 1986.
From there, he spent more than a decade on the agency side at Fleishman-Hillard, and following SBC's $16 billion acquisition of AT&T in 2005, he became Fleishman's onsite AT&T representative. Solomon's deep roots in telecoms give him a firm understanding of the company's business strategy and challenges, says AT&T senior EVP and global marketing officer Cathy Coughlin.
“That combination of PR expertise and business acumen not only accelerates and enhances his ability to tell our story and strengthen our reputation, but it also makes him a valuable adviser to our top executives.
“People trust Larry and his judgment,” Coughlin explains. “From launching the first iPhone in 2007 to leading communications for multiple major acquisitions and pioneering our extensive social media presence and digital content creation, Larry has consistently taken our communications to the next level.”
Reporting to Coughlin, Solomon oversees reputation management, media relations, and executive, financial, and digital communications for the telecoms giant.
AT&T has a blended team of about 200 internal communications executives and external agency representatives. Communications at AT&T is a “team sport,” Solomon says, and his department collaborates closely with others within the company for most efforts. For example, Solomon's group partnered with the human resources department last year for the launch of the Chairman's Challenge, an initiative encouraging employees to get fit. Similarly, AT&T's massive It Can Wait campaign, which aims to stop texting while driving, is a joint venture by the PR, public affairs, marketing, and advertising teams.
“With most of our programs, we take an integrated approach,” Solomon adds, “particularly with advertising and marketing.”
Such collaboration fuels a culture of innovation at AT&T, he says. About 170,000 of its 240,000 employees participate in the company's Innovation Pipeline, a crowd-sourcing program that allows employees to share ideas that could potentially make it to the market. One of those ideas, from a staffer in Chicago, became a mobile app for the It Can Wait initiative, in which a person's smartphone sends automated replies to text messages while the user is driving.
Last year, Solomon brought a burst of innovation to AT&T's communications function when he partnered with the IT department to launch a communications war room, which holds 20 screens where PR, customer service, and marketing executives can monitor conversation about the company across traditional and social media platforms. Staffers also have remote access to the facility, increasing the immediacy of their interactions with customers and media.
Connecting with students
Helping high school students is another important cause to the telecoms giant. AT&T Aspire is an initiative that aims to increase high school graduation rates through efforts including mentoring, job shadowing programs, and grants to organizations.
Since its launch in 2008, AT&T has invested more than $100 million in improving high school education, and in 2012 pledged to invest an additional $250 million in the next five years.
In the US, one in four students drop out of high school each year, according to a report by Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center, America's Promise Alliance, and the Alliance for Excellent Education.
Solomon says AT&T has taken up this cause to bolster its future workforce: “Part of the reason we're doing this is so we can have a workforce that's good for the country.”
The war room has improved AT&T's reputation management capabilities. “In our industry, new things are happening every week,” he notes. “We can now see in real time what's happening, assess the flow of conversation, and make decisions based on that. If we see a spike in activity [in the war room], it allows us to be better prepared when we get that first call from a reporter.”
Solomon and his staff are attempting to innovate on the content-creation front, too. He has hired a handful of former journalists who develop online content such as videos and infographics that are distributed to reporters and on social channels. Last year, they produced about 300 videos on topics ranging from new smartphone features to AT&T's response to Hurricane Sandy.
While some aspects of Solomon's job will always stay the same – he says building “strong, trusting relationships is a universal element” in PR – branching out into new areas of communications requires an entirely different skill set as well.
In hiring new staffers to his department, Solomon looks for people who are “fluent in technology.” The communications function requires a mix of people with traditional PR backgrounds and those with more technical skills who can help develop new platforms.
“Ten years ago, we were looking at people who were really bright, terrific writers with an intellectual curiosity,” he says. “We still need all of those qualities, but you also have to be a passionate consumer of technology, understanding and embracing it. It's the same for social media. I think that now applies to any company in any industry.”
Because it can be difficult to find the right mix of talent, Solomon has helped to implement curriculum and training opportunities for his team to expand their skill set. These efforts echo Solomon's tenure at Fleishman-Hillard, says John Graham, chairman at the agency and Solomon's former boss: “He did a great job in helping develop some of our younger staff, who today are a part of our group of leaders.”
AT&T coordinates its social media and digital activities with the help of a digital governance council that was created a few years ago. The council consists of PR, marketing, advertising, and customer service staffers who determine the company's focus on social media platforms. It is another example of Solomon's integrated, collaborative communications approach in action. “He has a very strong ability to look at a particular situation and analyze it,” explains Graham.
In an industry as vast and fast moving as telecommunications, Solomon says his biggest challenge is “filtering out the noise” from the issues that are most relevant to consumers and the company's business objectives. The corporate communications team must be disciplined in how it spends its time, focusing on the “big movers” and CEO Randall Stephenson's priorities.
“That's where having an attitude of collaboration and integration is so important,” adds Solomon. “We have to tap into smart thinking across the company to get things done. That's the world we live in – there's not just one control point for messaging.”
PR is important to Stephenson, who himself is a good communicator, observes Solomon: “He puts a lot of value on communications. We work with him very closely.”
Leading the charge
For example, Stephenson has been a key voice in AT&T's ongoing public awareness campaign about texting while driving. Last September, he admitted in an interview that someone close to him had once caused an accident while texting, and he said the smartphone was “being used inappropriately.”
Each year there are more than 100,000 automobile crashes in which people are injured or die because a driver was texting, according to the National Safety Council. Other major wireless carriers such as Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile have undertaken similar anti-texting efforts. AT&T has spent millions of dollars on its It Can Wait initiative since it launched in 2009, and the campaign will continue to be a big priority.
The other big movers currently driving the company's PR activities are mobility and data, Solomon notes. In November, AT&T said it would invest an extra $14 billion in the next three years to expand its wireless and broadband services, particularly its 4G LTE network. At the time, AT&T had LTE coverage in about 80 US cities, while its biggest competitor Verizon Wireless provided LTE in 420 cities. AT&T aims to bring LTE service to 300 million people by the end of 2014.
The additional investment will bolster its U-verse network, which provides high-speed Internet, digital TV, and digital home phone service. In March, AT&T will launch its Digital Life home security and automation system, which will allow users to monitor their homes, lock doors, and control appliances from a smartphone, tablet, or PC.
Investing in a broad range of products and services will help AT&T stand out from competitors. Mobility will continue to be the main priority for customers and the driving force behind AT&T's communications.
“It's all going mobile,” says Solomon. “We will see that mash-up in all industries.” Like the technology itself, Solomon's vision for the future of communications is expansive.
“This is an exciting time for our industry,” he adds. “The horizon is too wide for a traditional approach to communications.”