Shannon Brayton on How Comms Has Changed & Where It’s Going Next
Mixing Board Studio Session
Mixing Board community member Shannon (Stubo) Brayton is known and respected as simply one of the best comms practitioners that Silicon Valley has ever seen. She was an early trailblazer in moving from a comms role to CMO at a high-profile, large publicly traded company (LinkedIn) and, perhaps even more importantly, she has generously and positively impacted the careers of innumerable practitioners over the years as a peer, mentor or boss. She is now a partner and CMO at Bessemer Venture Partners.
Here are excerpts from this Mixing Board Studio Session between Shannon and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. Among other topics, they talk about building trust and a rapport with CEOs, what comms and marketing roles that startups should hire for first, the real definition of integrated marketing, and two things every aspiring young comms professional should master.
SG: Tell us about your journey to where you are now.
SB: I’ve, effectively, been doing comms for 27 years. I started at Intuit in 1994 as an administrative assistant on the marketing team and I supported a marketing director.
SG: So, the same year the Netscape browser came out?
SB: Yes. And remember, Netscape was down the road from Intuit and I was like, “Oh, my God, the internet is down the road.” I worked at Intuit for four years. Then I went to Yahoo! back when it was cool. When I tell people that, they’re like, “What is Yahoo? Was it ever cool?” I used to sit on planes with a Yahoo! branded something and someone would always say to me, “Oh, you work at the internet?” I got a lot of that.
I stayed there for four years. When a security question asks you for your favorite job, I always say it was Yahoo!. It was the best time in the world. I was 21 years old working at the hottest company. It was so much fun. From there I went to eBay, where I spent seven and a half years, including a stint abroad.
I went to OpenTable and worked on their IPO, took a much smaller job at OpenTable than I had at eBay — sometimes it’s okay to take a step back. Then I got an email from someone at LinkedIn that asked me if I would meet with the CEO to talk about how to do pre-IPO PR. I took the meeting and told Jeff Weiner that I would never take a job that was so far from my house… and I stayed 10 years.
After that, I took some time off. I flirted with the idea of doing a bigger, more operational job again, but when that didn’t end up working out, I decided I would try my hand at venture and I’ve been here six months and I totally love it. I often tell people that I’m not actually sure I’m good at my job because I’ve never had to sell a company that no one had heard of. All six of those brands, including Bessemer, are totally well-known brands.
SG: Well, you have a lot of people who would tell you differently and who would say that you’ve been a great boss and leader in the industry. It’s a fantastic journey, and, obviously, so much has changed about the Valley, about technology and comms since it began.
SB: When people bring that up to me, how long ago it was, I have this visceral memory of being at Intuit in 1997. We always had these Friday happy hours. I get a call from (former WSJ reporter) Don Clark, and he’s got some nasty story he wants to write about the company. There was some bug. I can’t even exactly remember what it was. But it was Friday and I was like, “Oh, well, we’ll just deal with it on Monday.” The thought of that now… the fact that I even had the luxury of an hour is insane to think about.
If you think about the acceleration, these jobs are so incredibly hard and intense for that reason. These are stressful jobs. I always laugh when I see those lists of the most stressful jobs. They have pilots in number one, police officer in number two and PR person in number three. I’m like, “What was I thinking?”
But it wasn’t as stressful back then as it is now. You’re always going to be in the line of fire and in the middle of things, but you used to have the luxury of time to really think about how you wanted to respond and get everyone aligned. You have seconds now.
SG: That’s one of the greatest tensions about the role of comms and also one of the biggest tensions between relationships with leaders, too. You’re expected to have a quick answer. You’re expected to know what everything is happening on Twitter right now. At the same time, you can’t do that part of the job well unless you also have thoughtful positioning, thoughtful strategy to lean back on. How do you help people balance that? What’s the best way for a comms person who just got the job to go do all these things?
SB: I just gave this advice to somebody yesterday. It’s super important to get everyone aligned really early on — this is who we are as a company, this is how we want to show up. You agree that with the media, we want to be responsive, transparent, or, if necessary, evasive. Pick your adjectives and use those to help guide you when you’re in one of these really stressful, tight timeline situations. Get everyone agreed on that so that you don’t start having that hard values-based conversation when you’re in the middle of trying to respond to The Wall Street Journal.
That’s one of the first things. It’s important, too, that you are not building a crisis binder. I cannot think of something less used than a crisis binder. We all have them if you’re over the age of 40. Instead it’s a one-pager on if this goes wrong — holding statement goes here, notify these people, board email addresses — you’ve got a one-pager of all the things you need so that you can respond really quickly. The speed thing is what’s changed the entire game for media and PR. To the extent that you can be lightweight but have agreed upon principles up front, you’ll just get a lot done faster and more effectively.
SG: You were at all these interesting places at all these interesting times and it was so easy to tell your story. What that can also mean is that you’re facing a crisis of opportunity. You have so much that you can do, so much that’s coming your way and so many approaches that you could take. You have unlimited opportunity and that’s almost as overwhelming as a crisis. But the problem with that crisis of opportunity is that you can be just as reactive to everything coming over the transom. You can’t see the other things out there. How do you help comms folks get past what’s coming at them and start shaping what could be?
SB: If you have the luxury of having more than one person doing comms, some of this can be really structural, where you actually have someone who’s your crisis media relations guru. You’ve got someone who’s driving the four campaigns per year that you’ve agreed upon forward. You’re able to separate it, “You’re going to deal with all of this stuff. I’m going to help you, but I’m not going to do it. But while you’re dealing with this, I’m going to push these four positive campaigns about our brand and product forward.”
If you don’t have the luxury of having two people, you have to constantly check with yourself. Is this crisis going to derail this thing that I’m trying to push? Do they totally fly in the face of each other? You’ve got to make the trade offs all the time. One of the other things is, I don’t bring a knife to a gun fight. When I took the job at LinkedIn, so many people said to me, “I don’t get it. Why would I need a LinkedIn page and a Facebook page?” And in 2010, prior to the IPO, we made a very clear decision — we were never going to try to compete with them on the personal side, but we carved out for ourselves we are always going to be your professional profile of record. These are two totally separate lives that you’re going to have.
Jeff talked about this at Web 2.0, remember that conference? He said that Facebook is the place you put your keg stand photo. Well, you don’t put it on LinkedIn because you don’t need your boss and your colleagues to see that. We always talked about this separation and we were able to drive this very clear narrative. This is the place that could exist in concert and in parallel with Facebook and what they were doing as opposed to trying to compete with them directly. All of our campaigns were anchored around this idea that you could have both, but LinkedIn was the only place that you should think about being professional.
So whatever took us off track, if Facebook launched a competing product, all these companies can go do their own thing and we don’t need to be reactive. We’re going to continue marching down this path. This is the proactive, clear story we’re telling that everyone needs a professional profile of record online.
SG: That switch is so important. You’ve been tremendously good at working well with CEOs, Jeff Weiner included. But this is such a hard thing for comms people. Many comms folks are now reporting to CEOs, which is great, but there’s still some misunderstanding about the role and what you need to do. If a competitor comes up with a product, the first place the CEO runs to is the comms person and says, “What are we doing about this?” And your instinct is to react to them reacting to this. Versus, “Actually, we’re going to take the energy from this and completely do a different strategy. We’re going to be thoughtful about it and we’re going to do it in a way that doesn’t look reactive.” That’s such an art but people have to learn that on the job. What’s the best way for comms people who are in that role to manage all those things at once?
SB: I’ve had the good fortune of working for CEOs that actually really understand comms. Meg Whitman was another person that really understood communications. She helped me write a line one time, I think it was a notebook, not even a computer. PayPal launched a competing product to something we had. She literally sat with me and we wrote a statement that basically talked about the fact that there’s always going to be room for two players. And sometimes, when there’s a second player that launches, you get a disproportionate share of the attention.
Number one, you can always work for a CEO who tries to understand comms or knows that they don’t, and really does defer to you. That would be a dream job for a comms person, is to work for a CEO who really gets it and appreciates what you do and also really listens to you because you have experience and expertise. Harder to do than it looks, but super important if you can.
Some of it is just having the confidence to calm whoever down who runs to you and says, “What are we going to do in response to this thing?” Having the wherewithal to say, “Look, this is going really well, we’ve got this in the hopper, we’ve got to continue down this path, it doesn’t make sense to react to it.” And then, sometimes, I’ll have examples in my back pocket — here’s three companies that tried to do a competing statement or go back on it and it didn’t end well. The person automatically goes, “Oh, yeah. Okay, right. We don’t want to do that.” And usually, it doesn’t last very long. It’s usually a flare up of two days and then they’re calm again because they’re seeing that their thing is working. It has to be working in order to have that confidence, right? Even if you are doing the traditional duck, where the legs are going underneath the water, you’ve got to have the confidence up front to stick to your guns on the story.
SG: I’m having flashbacks of all the times I didn’t do those things.
SB: This is not a therapy session.
SG: No, but it is! The key lesson I’ve learned in consulting roles — because you’re able to do it when you’re a consultant, easier than when you’re in-house — you are playing the role of that therapist in some respects. You’re more listening and taking it in versus reacting and building on top of it. So many CEOs have the engineer brain, they’re looking for you to figure out the math that you go through when you’re working through the response. They want to know how you’re thinking, less about what specifically you think.
SB: There’s two other things I would say on CEO relationship building that are super important. One, and this doesn’t happen out of the gate because you have to build trust and a rapport, but transparency on what’s going on in the business is so important. The more you can share with somebody, the better they will shape your story and your company’s story.
You’ve got to be honest. It’s not always comfortable out of the gate, but you’ve got to build a rapport where the person can tell you anything and know that you’ll handle it with the right level of confidentiality and urgency. Super important.
The other thing, too, I’ll never forget this. Jeff and I, we worked together for 10 years. Seven years into it, we had a phone conversation that was three sentences long. I don’t even know that I said hello. He said, “Did you see it?” And I said, “Yup, I got it.” And he goes, “Okay, call me back.” And we knew exactly what we were talking about without ever discussing it. I’m not kidding you, that was the conversation.
That shorthand is so important to build with a CEO because they can’t always get on the phone and give you the whole spiel. When you can get to a point where you can finish each other’s sentences and read each other’s minds… you can be that person that they don’t have to be like, “Ugh, I got to call Sean, crap. He’s going to ask me 15 questions, I don’t have time.” You’ve got to build the trust so that you can read them and you get it quickly.
SG: That quick read stuff is really the point where you know you have it. It applies to a CEO but it also applies to so many other functions within the company. You understand when the product lead says something, you understand when the head engineer says something, you understand when the biz dev or the sales people or the head of EMEA. You’re at the core of all those things, in a very trusted position.
SB: That’s why these jobs are so amazing, right? You’re at the nexus of all this stuff. But I don’t think the world sees comms people as business leaders. They see them as functional comms experts. To the extent that you can actually understand how a P&L gets put together, what you need for an IPO, how sales enablement decks get built really deeply and trying to understand all the different functions — that’s how business leaders end up with board seats even if they had a comms background. You need to be seen as a business leader, not just, “I’m a comms expert.”
SG: Isn’t that what most comms people do now?
SB: We are much further along on the spectrum than the world sees us. If you haven’t had a great experience with a comms person or you don’t have someone in your circle who is your go-to and they’re a comms person, it’s easier to be like, “Oh, they’re amazing at communications but I could never give them XYZ role, I could never put them in HR,” whatever. To the extent that comms people can show their agility now in all these different roles and weighing in on HR issues because they, ultimately, become comms issues now, right? The more you can demonstrate the overall business value that you bring to a role. Some people just have archaic viewpoints of PRs.
SG: And to be fair, when we both started, it was more functional. It just has evolved incredibly quickly.
SB: Absolutely. And there’s plenty of comms people who’ve now morphed into CMOs, COOs that potentially want to be CEOs. We have this proverbial louder voice in the room and a purview, to your point, about being in the middle of all this stuff. The role has evolved and the thinking on who we are and who’d be great at it has evolved as well.
SG: So, let’s talk about your board seats. You’re currently on two boards, which is fantastic. What was your experience as a comms leader that these companies were looking for in bringing you on to a board? What’s the experience of serving on those boards — what’s your role?
SB: I did not get any board offers when I was the VP of Corporate Communications. Once I became the CMO, I got lots of board opportunities. There’s this view that the CMO can be that much more valuable. The first board seat that I took was with a smaller company and I took it because it was a low risk way for me to try my hand at being a board member, as opposed to just an exec team member. And it’s very, very different.
I can advise on all kinds of things because I’ve seen it at scale because of my various jobs, but it’s unusual for a head of comms to get a board seat. I do think that’s going to change in the future. Comms people are business leaders and they really will have perspective on exactly how things are going to roll out and get communicated and how it’s going to play out in the media, how it’s going to play out internally, which is more important than ever. Look at the recent Activision thing. That board should have given a ton of care to how their issues were handled.
SG: If you had a comms person or CMO on that board, it would’ve been handled differently.
SB: I couldn’t agree more. They’re in a terrible spot and I don’t want to throw any darts at them. But when you watch that, if there were a really savvy comms person on that board, they probably would not be in this predicament.
So, I weigh in on all kinds of things. As a former CMO, one of my boards actually sells to CMOs and they wanted a voice of the customer on their board. That’s a really easy reason for a CMO to take a board seat. What I’d like to see longer term is that a comms leader actually gets these amazing board jobs — not just the heads of marketing.
SG: Now that you’re at Bessemer you’re dealing with multiple stage companies. But almost all of them would be much earlier stage than LinkedIn. Now you have the opportunity to give them this advice and talk to the CEOs, the marketing people and comms people. What are you finding to be the common themes of what people are asking you about or where they’re looking for input and advice?
SB: It’s really all over the map — from we’ve got unhappy employees because of a PTO issue to how do I hire a CMO? It’s so interesting and fun and I’m so engaged in all the different topics but it really doesn’t follow a pattern. A lot of companies call me about agencies and say, “Is it too early? I don’t like mine. How do I find one?” I get a lot of questions about that because they’ve gotten advice from somebody at some point, “Oh, hire an agency.” They don’t know where to begin, they’ve hired one and been burned and don’t like them, they’ve got one on retainer charging them too much and not doing enough. There’s a whole bucket or around that. Then, there’s, “At what stage do I hire a comms person? Where do I put them?”
It really runs the gamut but the good news about this crop of founders, they’re really thoughtful about bringing on the right person and the right team and not just hiring someone because somebody said, “Oh, they’re good.” There’s a lot of really deep diligence going on before they’re bringing on senior comms people and that part’s great. They want someone who’s really in the boat with them and asking questions like, can they be a comms leader, can they morph into a CMO? There’s just more investment in our function.
SG: To your point, can they morph into a CMO? This is a really interesting conversation that I’m having now. Founders ask, “Where do I start? I know I’m going to need all these things but what is the first person? What’s the difference between all these roles now? Should I hire a content lead? A comms person? A brand person? A performance person?” And if you can do them all, great. But the question I have is, what’s the real difference between all these titles and all this terminology?
SB: There really is a difference. Seven years ago, I would’ve been like, “It’s all one big thing,” but I actually really do understand the differences now. One trend I’m seeing that I really want to advocate for, if any founder happens to read this, or any person who’s looking for a larger role. Brand, comms and social are being put together under one leader and that makes a ton of sense. Because essentially, your social strategy, your brand strategy and your comms strategy should really all be one thing. It’s really how the consumer or the customer experiences your brand. Those three things I really think should sit together. It’s helpful though to have someone who really understands brand architecture and brand strategy as part of this team, but that can all be one thing under one comms leader. There’s no doubt about that.
On the content side, people always call and ask me about that. Like, “I’ve got this candidate for content lead.” I ask, “What are they going to do?” There’s very different content leads. There are content people who are highly specialized in demand generation for B2B SaaS companies and that’s a very different role than someone who’s tweeting, “Happy Monday.” What’s your goal for today?” A content lead in demand gen is very different and should really be part of a revenue generating team. It’s performance and it’s a specialty. Before I really understood what it did, I’d say, “it’s all one thing,” but it’s really not.
A product marketer at every company is very, very different. A lot of product marketing people are great at narrative writing. But some narrative building — and who owns the narrative for the company — should sit with the comms/brand/social person. It just depends on what the company is trying to achieve and what they are trying to do with their messaging.
SG: If you have a very strong comms person who could take on brand and all these other aspects that are outside of performance, do you need a CMO? Does every company need a top comms person and a CMO?
SB: If you’re heavily demand-gen dependent and your business depends on customer acquisition, putting a comms and brand only person in charge of marketing, without having a strong number two in that area, is a bit of a risk.
The other phrase that gets used a lot is head of growth or head of growth marketing. When people call me and say this, I have to disaggregate — what are you really trying to hire? A lot of times it’s something different than what they’re calling it. And you want to go-to-market with the right job description. Those things are actually seen similarly in the outside world but different inside of a company. You have to be really specific.
SG: When you were at LinkedIn, coming from comms and moving into a marketing role — this is a dated term, but most companies still need to do this — you were doing integrated marketing. Everyone’s working on the same song sheet. Comms is working with the marketing team, brand team, etcetera. Even today, it’s still more of a dream than what people actually do. But it’s ironic because almost every company starts off as integrated because they’re just a baby team. Somewhere around employee number 150 or 200, they get dis-integrated. Suddenly, they find themselves like, “We have to work together again and plan for this stuff.” How do you coach companies into doing that or keep them together and keep the people integrated?
SB: When I was running comms and then took the marketing role, I had to stay at both teams because we didn’t replace my job out of the gate. I had to go to both teams and say, “I know you used to not get along and step on each other’s toes but, now, we’re all one big happy family we’re going to do integrated marketing.” Everyone rolled their eyes. Marketers think that PR people are light and not serious and just care about the story. PR people think marketing people are slow and overly analytical. I had to do a big mindset shift which was really hard. But I sold them all on the idea that the more you know about the other person’s world… the world is trending in a direction where all of you could be CMOs.
We did job swaps where you’d sit with this person for 12 hours — we tried to really get people to understand the other side of everybody’s world. And people really got it. The most integrated campaign we ever worked on was a rebrand. The brand team was driving it but, obviously, it’s super underpinned by research. You have to roll it out to employees, so employee comms is heavily involved. You don’t want to just launch a brand and not have it reflected everywhere else, so the social team had to be activated. We really had to make it feel like people were dependent on each other to get this thing done — if one piece fell out of it, it wasn’t going to be as successful. That’s true integrated marketing when you actually have to work with these other people to get this thing done well.
It’s not like, “Oh, well this is a good team building thing,” or some appendage. Integrated marketing has to work in order for this thing to land. I made this wheel, at one point, showing that the product marketer at LinkedIn was in the center of everything but how critical all the other pieces were in order to get a product out. I used to share it at offsites so that people understood how they fit into this wheel. It really resonated with people to understand that, yes, the product marketer was the center but all 14 spokes had to be working in order to get this product out the door.
SG: What advice do you give people just starting in comms?
SB: I mentor a lot of younger comms people that you have to master consumption and composure. The ones that show up best — they consume really well — email, Slack, text, Twitter, Techmeme, you name it. You’ve got to be on top of so many different things. You have to have some hack in your brain for how you’re going to consume all of this information and then make decisions based on it. You’ve got to be up to speed on what’s happening in the world, what’s happening at the company, within your own team. You just have so much coming at you, you’ve got to be a good consumer of information and have a way to organize it in your brain.
And then, make decisions about, “Oh, actually, we’re not going to launch our game today because Activision is under fire.” Making decisions based on what you’re consuming out in the real world and what’s going on in the company. You know someone’s going to miss a number, you’re not going to put them up for a promotion. Everything, right? It’s just constant information consumption.
The other thing is composure. CEOs or senior people who get rattled and come to you don’t want a PR person getting further rattled. You actually need to be the person who says, “Okay, I got it. Let’s figure it out. Let’s talk about it.” You’ve got to have composure and show up in a way that seems extremely confident even if you’re paddling under the water. If you want to accelerate your comms career, learning how to compartmentalize, have composure and be great at consumption — you’re going to be A-okay.
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