By nickjohnson - April 8th, 2014
Alan Elias is SVP of Corporate Communications at Wells Fargo. Alan contributed to the first Incite Summit:East in NYC last September, and will also be speaking at the forthcoming Incite Summit:West in September in San Francisco - where he'll be covering the increasingly popular move from brand to publisher.
In this interview, we investigate Wells Fargo's own experience making that transition, the importance of a relentless focus on the customer, and how Alan feels the Corporate Communications function has changed and will change in time.
We last spoke just over six months ago, in the run-up to the Incite Summit: East. How do you feel your role - and the landscape for Corporate Communications executives in general - has changed over that period?
My own role has not changed. Though I am adding a couple of staff positions at the moment - because the need to tell our story and the opportunities to tell our story are increasing - especially when you include traditional media relations, public relations, and our own ‘P+R’ philosophy to the job descriptions.
How would you say the role of Corporate Communications executive is changing at the moment?
I certainly believe that the expectations on someone coming in to a corporate communications role have evolved. In the ‘old days’, one focused very much on media relations and employee communications, in quite a traditional sense. Over the last seven to ten years, with social media gaining prominence and importance, that has dramatically changed.
That has been especially noticeable recently - with many more companies who had been slower to the party from a social media perspective jumping on board and recognising that if your company is trying to reach the millennial - and even the Generation X - population, that social media is a core medium. There’s no choice, social must be part of the mix nowadays.
As a result, we are always mindful to ensure that our Corporate Communications includes individuals who we would classify as ‘digital natives’, people who have grown up with digital media, as opposed to those who have had to learn about it later in life. The digital natives simply have a different and valuable mindset and we would be remiss not to leverage their value and expertise.
The rise of digital media means that the people I’m adding to my team will have added responsibilities when telling the Wells Fargo story. They’ll increasingly focus on publishing our own content along with traditional media relations.
In March, for example, Wells Fargo launched a new online magazine called Wells Fargo Stories. It’s an external facing magazine that allows us to tell Wells Fargo’s stories that may not make it into mainstream media. When consumers or businesses try and understand Wells Fargo, we want to make sure they have a more well-rounded understanding.. It’s something we envisage to align with our ‘P+R’ strategy.
What is the Wells Fargo P+R strategy? And why have you decided to focus on creating an online magazine as the potential centerpiece of this strategy?
The P+R (Publishing + Relations) strategy came into being over the last couple of years.
Second, while individuals still get the majority of their news content from local TV news (which is a little bit scary in and of itself!), there is a shift occurring - especially amongst the millennial population - to get the bulk of their information through non-traditional sites that are part of the social media landscape like reddit,or Pinterest, or even the Huffington Post.
So if we’re going to be successful in being able to continue to tell our story, and avoid having our story dictated by those with a very negative agenda, we need to take proactive action from a publishing perspective.
Of course, on the positive side, there are a large number of great things going on at the company that I think people would be very interested in hearing about. We have millions of customers. Of course, they primarily want to get the financial services they need, but I think they would also like to feel good about where they do business. So P+R feeds into that aspect, as well.
I’d like to refocus on the increasing importance of social at Wells Fargo. Can you let us know about the practicalities of social outreach? When it comes to pressing ‘share’ on a news story via Facebook, who does that?
Our ‘Enterprise Social Marketing’ team work from a corporate perspective on getting the Wells Fargo brand and story content out. They’re primarily responsible for our work on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social platforms.
My Communications team would work with them on larger programs or campaigns where there’s a lot of marketing content that would need to be integrated between social media, paid media, and public relations.
Beyond the ESM team, we have nearly 120 individuals who are part of corporate communications who are designated as official spokespeople of the company. If you’re deemed an official spokesperson of the company on Twitter, for example, your handle ends in ‘WF’ And you have a page that adheres to brand standard. Obviously, we don’t simply want 120 of us simply repeating the same PR messaging, we’re want the channel to present a human side to the company, too. So we ensure that while 70 - 80% of tweets are related to the company, there are still about 20% that are personal or at least not about Wells Fargo.
To give you a specific example to clarify things, let’s say we’re doing some media relations work with the Wall Street Journal for a specific story. Perhaps ultimate responsibility is with my group in Wholesale. If we know there’s a positive leaning story that has come out in the Journal, we’ll try to leverage that more broadly by ‘adding on’ from a social media perspective; trying to get the conversation going via Twitter with a number of tweets from our official spokespeople that point their numerous followers back to that story. The same happens - often even more so - when we’re doing press release distribution.
We’re doing some social media outreach relating to our involvement in that initiative. The ABA will send us materials on the campaign, and then we’ll look to amplify our involvement using social - either linking via Twitter, putting something up on LinkedIn, or writing something up on our blog - perhaps even featuring it in the new Wells Fargo Stories publication.
This whole approach is a dramatic change from the old Wells Fargo, where we were a very low-profile company, doing very little communications. It’s been a huge change in philosophy over the last 5-6 years.
I think most of our readers will appreciate the external pressures that led to that change. However, there must have been a significant amount of internal maneuvering to actually make that change happen. Can you let us know how you helped to do that?
A couple of things took place that helped to facilitate this change.
First, and on the most basic level, over a number of years Wells Fargo has evolved from a super-regional, West-Coast focused bank into a national brand via a number of mergers.
But even with this new national presence, we tended to just ‘do our thing’ and not talk much about ourselves publicly.
During the financial crisis five or six years ago, we then doubled in size overnight through our merger with Wachovia. Our footprint went from predominantly the Western USA to truly national.
And you can’t be the 4th largest bank in the United States - as we became - and remain silent. We needed to be out there telling your story.
Those issues together made it a little more of an easy sell than it would have been in the past. Our CEO John Stumpf recognized it was a necessity – and an opportunity -- to be able to tell our story publicly, and be proud of what we’re doing. So, one of his first moves was to hire Oscar Suris away from Ford to become the head of Corporate Communications. Oscar really deserves a great deal of acknowledgement for the work he’s done to completely reconfigure the function, set up the right structure and hire the right people into the key roles.
It has also be really helpful to have our CEO make his mandate to his senior executives to “pick up the mic.”
‘Picking up the mic’ might include talking to the media, but it might equally be participating in more community meetings, being involved more in local organisations, and telling our story via local clubs and organisations. Whatever the case might be, it was fundamentally about having much higher visibility and helping to tell the Wells Fargo story - so that others don’t define it for us.
In our last conversation, you talked about your number one business priority being ‘putting customers first’. This focus on customer experience appears to have become even more important over the last six months.
How do you at Wells Fargo define customer experience, and what do you do to improve it?
Fundamentally, we focus on doing an extensive amount of research on our customers - to better understand them, their needs, and what makes them tick.
For all four of the ‘Big Banks’, we’ve understood that our competition also comes from local Community Banks and Credit Unions, which have enjoyed a higher reputation since the financial crisis. That competition is a good thing, frankly. It forces banks like Wells Fargo to ensure that we are competitive with what is offered by the smaller banks, and, from a community relations perspective, to be even more a part of the local fabric.
If we’re to address that, we understand that a lot of work has to go into better understanding the customer.
We have a variety of programs that are underway that fell under our ‘One Wells Fargo’ campaign, which are predicated on the notion that if we can do a better job of working together across business units, and that if our number one goal is always to put the customer first, then a lot of positives will follow. We should see greater longevity with our consumer and business customers, their wanting to purchase additional products from us, which in turn adds up to greater return for our shareholders. All of that falls into place if we’re successfully carrying outour number one job: putting the customer first.
That concludes our interview with Alan Elias, SVP of Corporate Communications for Wells Fargo. Alan will be speaking at the Incite Summit:West on May 13-14 in San Francisco - participating in a panel entitled "Turn your brand into a publishing powerhouse: Produce engaging, relevant content to drive deeper engagement". To find out more about this panel, the full conference schedule, and the event as a whole, head to www.incitemc.com/west.