By nickjohnson - May 22nd, 2013
Jeff Shafer is responsible for global communications at Lenovo, the US$30 billion personal technology company and the world’s second-largest PC vendor.
He is one of 40+ senior communications and marketing executives who contributed to the Incite: Summit East.
We spent some time with Jeff investigation his approach to communications. This is part two of that interview. Part one is accessible here.
In part one, you mentioned the importance of "telling our story in a way that makes sense".
‘Storytelling’ as a concept is also getting increasingly popular at the moment. There’s a lot of talk about how companies must move from a campaign-based approach towards ‘telling a story’ about a brand. Would you agree that this is increasingly a priority for Corporate Communications functions?
To be honest, I think that the idea of storytelling has been around for a long time.
The difference is that the ability to frame and market a strategy around the word ‘storytelling’ is something that is trendy at the moment.
But I’m not sure that ‘storytelling’ itself is all that different to previous approaches. You just have so many ways now to actually tell the story - thanks to new technology, social media, etc. And I also think that there’s probably a little more science to storytelling now - and a little more investment in the concept.
Really though, when were PR people ever NOT telling a story? That’s always been the case. There’s never been a time when I could force a message on you. I’ve got to get you interested, and the best way to do that is to make you feel that there’s a broader story involved.
The change though is that I think people are becoming more sophisticated about how you make your story credible and consistent in a significantly different communications environment. Right now, it’s no longer a couple of people talking about your brand, but millions. Millions of people who can talk about you without you even knowing.
So the difference isn’t that we want to tell a story, it’s in the environment that we’re in. Now, we need that story to be consistent, to manifest itself anywhere. Inconsistencies will be spotted. A lack of authenticity will be found out, and you’ll be exposed if your story doesn’t hold together.
This shift, from two people talking about your brand to millions - that must be an absolute revolution, and probably a nightmare! In terms of doing your best to get a consistent message out there, and then controlling, or at least positively influencing, the conversation around that message, what do you do?
How has your role, and the communications function itself, changed now that the company has to some extent lost power and is now an influencer, rather than a simply a broadcaster?
Well, you certainly can’t be a control freak any more!
I simply will not create the Lenovo brand by ensuring that USA Today and the Wall Street Journal get our message.
People are going to create their own context for your brand, they’re going to be talking about it. Or at least you hope they’re going to talk about it, that you’re interesting, authentic and engaged enough for them to want to talk about it - and talk about it positively.
Even when the conversation is less than positive, you also need to ensure that you’re in a position to respond to that - and hopefully change opinions or at least deal with some of the negativity that could be out there.
It’s definitely a challenge.
I think that it makes this idea that your story has to hang together in lots of different ways and a lot of different places really important.
Take us, for instance. Lenovo was a company founded in China in 1984 by one entrepreneur and 12 other scientists with about $25k. Those guys turned us into a company capable of purchasing IBM’s PC business for $1.5bn in 2005.
Those two companies coming together didn’t create a big Chinese company. Nor did it create an IBM that happened to have a big presence in China.
It created something different, a global company, with a diverse leadership team, different cultures, and with fundamental roots in both the East and the West.
So we’ve got all these pieces to this story about being a global company and they’re all interesting to different people - and we’ve got to find a way to tell that story so it hangs together.
For instance, look at reputational issues. The relations between the US and China are something we need to think about. Right now, there are some controversies and negativity in the US about China.
How do I ensure that Lenovo stands apart from that?
By making sure our story is compelling, that it’s truthful, that it hangs together - and that when you experience us in different places, you see a company that lives up to idea of a global company.
I couldn’t come to you and tell you we’re a global company, and then have you look at our board of directors and see that it’s 12 people from China. It’s not. We have a very international board.
Your story has to hang together, in all these different places people see it. Again, there are millions looking at it, talking about it. The more popular you are, the more that people talk. And the more cracks in your story can be found.
So our job is to try to make sure that wherever possible we’re telling a story that’s consistent. Equally, that we help advise the company internally to make decisions that are consistent with who we say we are, and not make decisions that are not consistent with that.
What was the biggest thing you learned in the last year?
The thing that became very clear to me in 2012 was how important your reputation as a company is - in dictating the tone and tenor of everything else that you try to communicate.
If you've got a strong, positive, respected, credible global reputation, then all of the other things that you do are better and easier.
Lenovo is perceived as having good governance and being transparent. We’re perceived as meeting financial commitments, making good high quality products, being a good actor in the communities in which we operate. All those things add up to reputation.
And the power of that reputation is enormous. To help you not only promote your product and present your financial results, but also to deal with the rest of the swirl that’s going on out there in traditional media, over social media, in consumer conversations.
I think that is very pronounced. If I look over the course of this year, it has become clear to me that the most important thing I do is try to protect and defend and promote that reputation at the highest level - it makes everything else work better.
What about looking forward? What do you see being a big issue or opportunity over the next twelve months?
It’s changes in the media landscape - through the rapid evolution of social media and the diverse new ways people can connect. The fact that Facebook is now for 40 year olds, and teenagers are using a bunch of other things. Twitter is very hot right now, but God knows what’ll be hot a year from now!
This pace of change in the technology of communications is obviously an overwhelming influence on everything that we as Communications executives do.
If you look forward to what’s going to happen over next year, the most basic thing is that we’ve got to have a handle on how people are communicating with each other.
You’ve got to bear in mind, always, that the people running Communications departments, the people involved in this functions, are already behind. Everything that I think I know about social media is something that my 15 year old knew a while ago, and has already moved past.
This is something our whole community has to focus on.
Saying that, I would add that I think it’s really important, especially for global companies, to not underestimate that there’s still significant importance in traditional media outlets.
To build a business in China as a global brand, I need to be able to show the Chinese market that the traditional heavyweights like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Reuters have still covered us. Those traditional media channels are still very important at building reputation.
Sure, for consumer products, you need millions of teenagers and people in their 20s talking about you. But to build reputation, you still need those opinion makers in traditional media - and to get them on board you need to be able to articulate your story. It’s still important - that stuff’s not dead, it’s just taking it’s place as part of the overall conversation that’s out there.
I want to build on your comment about pace of change being critical, and the plethora of new channels and technologies out there that you need to get a handle on.
Surely, even with new social networks and technologies - the Vines and Instagrams of this world - fundamentally the rules are the same?
You’ve got to be a good party guest - tell interesting stories that are relevant to your party guests, and actually listen to the comments you get, not just blindly continue telling your story.
While there will be some tactical challenges in learning how Vine fits into a broader communications landscape, surely the strategy never changes? Doesn’t that make the pace of change a significantly easier challenge to overcome?
Yes, ultimately whether I’m trying to get into a newspaper or trying to get onto Tumblr, I’ve got to be interesting enough for someone to talk about me.
I have the same core message, but how I go out to a different channel in the traditional world is not that different to how you go out in the new world. Indeed, things are better in one way. Everyone who is paying attention to what you’re saying then has ability to amplify that.
I wasn’t going to get an interesting story in the Wall Street Journal and then run out to a local library and photocopy it 10,000 times to hand out to my friends.
That’s the dynamic that has been created - now i can get an interesting story in the Wall Street Journal, and not only do people read it, but they recirculate it. A hundred of the WSJ newspaper readers may have their own channels that can reach millions more before we know it. But yes, the fundamental, core story that I have to tell is still roughly the same, regardless of channel.
But here’s the problem.
We’re a 30,000 person company, spread over 160 countries-worth of customers, we have 100 countries where we’ve got staff, and a plethora of different product lines and business units.
So how do we deal with our stories getting in front of 3 million people ‘before I know it’? How can we deal with this speed of conversation when it take us a month to figure out what we want to say about some things.
I don’t mean Lenovo specifically, I mean any large company - Fortune 500, Fortune 1000.
The way it used to work is that you think of something, you go to meetings, you talk about it, it goes through product managers, gets approved, things get written, edited, reviewed and approved again.
Even when you’re moving quickly - which on occasion we’re capable of doing like everyone else - there’s all this infrastructure in place that's unsympathetic to dealing with the speed of change, the speed at which information now travels out there into the world.
Companies and communications people have to figure out how to cut through all that so you can authentically participate in a conversation. There’s more to this than having one guy whose job it is to write pithy things on Facebook or Twitter.
You’ve got to really figure out how to deal with the world out there on it’s terms and cut through some of your processes and some of the things you need to do, in order to take advantage of what’s out there.
So while the fact you have to still say interesting things that people care about is a constant, now you’ve got to do it faster, and with less rigmarole, and less process, in order to be effective.
This concludes our two part interview with Jeff Shafer, Vice-President of Global Corporate Communications at Lenovo. To learn more from Jeff, you can download recordings of him speaking at the Incite: Summit East, which took place on September 18 - 19, 2013 in New York. With 40+ senior executives from large brands speaking, and discussions on topics as wide-ranging as customer-centricity, multi-channel and internal collaboration, it's the best opportunity to equip yourself for the next twelve months. There's more here.