Suzanne Philion on Reshaping a Century of Societal Behavior

Mixing Board Studio Session

Mixing Board
11 min readJul 12, 2023

Suzanne Philion is Head of Communications, Marketing, and Public Affairs at Waymo, a fully autonomous driving tech company.

Suzanne began her career in the public sector as a Foreign Service Officer at the US Department of State, building relationships with key journalists and third parties, and working to build public awareness and understanding of US foreign policy and national security engagement in Europe, the Middle East, Canada, Central and South America. She loved her 10+ years of diplomatic experience, but didn’t want to be a Fed her whole life, so she jumped to the private sector, where she led communications teams at both Yahoo and Verizon Media Services, and later founded her own communications agency. She’s passionate about exploring our world (having lived and worked in England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Colombia), and is married with four insane but generally lovable kids.

In this Studio Session, Suzanne and Mixing Board Founder, Sean Garrett, talk about managing a hype cycle, how to build trust, communicate a mission of safety, and get people excited about a new technology all at the same time, the importance of an aligned message in a complex market, and press release fatigue.

SG: Waymo has been around then most people may think, right? What’s your role there and how has it evolved since you joined?

SP: I joined Waymo as Head of Comms, leading PR and internal comms back in November 2018. It was a really fascinating time for the company. We were just about to launch the first phase of Waymo One, our ride hailing service. Until then it had not been a public service. We had various trusted testers, but it wasn’t open to the public.

If we get in the way-back time machine — we started as a project within the Google universe in 2009, following DARPA and Sergei and Larry’s deep interest in the technology. We grabbed a few brilliant people, many of whom are still at the company, one of whom is now one of our co-CEOs. That became and evolved into the Google self-driving car project and then through Alphabetization, we graduated into the Bet sphere. We were operating at that point out of X over in Mountain View, driving around the South Bay and serving rides down there. Again, not in a public way, but as we advanced the technology.

As we were looking to begin commercialization, and thinking about how we can start serving more riders, we tested in Arizona.

In the meantime we had become an independent subsidiary of Alphabet, and named ourselves Waymo. At that time, in 2015–2016, we were really getting serious about how we would bring this technology into more of a commercial phase. There had been amazing people working on this project, whether within Waymo or supported by X, since its founding in 2009. At that point, we really started to grow the team, and bring on folks who already had experience in both B2C and B2B who could help start thinking in that direction — from a product perspective and from an external engagement perspective across the board. I was part of that wave that joined in late 2018.

SG: How’d you find this job?

SP: I had been working in tech, my first gig was at Yahoo, shortly after Marissa Meyer took the helm. I spent four and a half years there and led corporate communications. It was a really interesting time, and also a really tough time, as the company was sorting out its future that ultimately ended with a sale to Verizon. I went over to Verizon as part of that sale.

I joke that I never went to business school, but that first tech job at Yahoo was my deep, practical head first dive into gritty business experience. Experience that I didn’t even necessarily sign up for, but you sure grow a hell of a lot from it. It was an opportunity to try and take an iconic internet giant and move us forward into the mobile future, but also to navigate so many of the business challenges we were up against. Whether it was simply competition, or how would we handle the Alibaba investment, or the handling of what had become a very public auction process for this company — not to mention a couple of massive data breaches. There was a lot to quickly learn. But I got to work with an incredible team and you never forget the lessons that you learn. I draw on them regularly.

From there, I started my own gig for a little bit. After working in the public sector at the State Department and then moving into a massive publicly traded tech company, I really wanted to dig in on the early stage tech side. I wanted to have the opportunity to really shape something from the beginning — to help give birth to a brand, a voice, a tone, a value proposition externally, but also help on the business development side of things. It was an interesting challenge, one that made me have an even greater appreciation for the work the founders do.

From there I was very fortunate to get the call from Waymo. I had been casually following the development of autonomous vehicles, but there were a couple of things that really drew me to this opportunity. One was the challenge of such a huge bet that could transform mobility, and therefore society. That is a big proposition to put out into the universe. This isn’t just some widget that someone’s hoping will compete on the market and nominally improve someone’s life. This is transforming a 100 year old societal behavior that is baked into everything that we do. And by the way, driving isn’t safe. We accept so much death, so many injuries, and so much damage as a result of human driving behavior that can be prevented. I was humbled by the opportunity and really drawn by the challenge.

SG: What’s the scope of what you do now?

SP: It’s increased in my almost five years here — I now lead marketing, communications, and public affairs. Right now we’re really focused on building our ridership in San Francisco and Phoenix, LA next, and other cities following that. When I look at the responsibility of our teams, it’s really telling that story, building trust, communicating that mission of safety, and getting people excited. That’s the fun part.

SG: Excitement and trust & safety — those things don’t always go together. What’s interesting about this job is the veritable hype cycles that you have to manage. Of course you want to get excitement and attention, but you can’t overhype it, you’ve got to make it measured. You can’t overpromise, yet you also have to make people feel like this is an inevitability, while doing it in a safe, trustworthy way. How do you balance all those different factors?

SP: You got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. You’ve got to live in the present. What is the current understanding of the technology and where do you need to improve that? You’ve got to prove out that this is technology that folks can trust. We have to communicate how we’ve built a safe system and share those specifics so people have something to transparently bite into. And then chewing gum, if you will, would be more of the future tense. How do you look ahead to what we want to be communicating to current and potential riders? And how do you measure that in the right way?

You mentioned those heady days, early in the AV hype cycle. Folks were excited, dozens of cities were coming to us in just a year or two. That was the vibe. The truth is, this is such incredibly hard technology, that is underpinned, if done responsibly, by a robust safety framework. That is something you’ve got to roll out responsibly, in collaboration with local policy makers, and in collaboration with local communities, so that they’re not surprised. We wanted to make sure that we had that fundamental basis of trust and safety, but we also wanted to get people excited. We’ve made very deliberate choices when we announce things, do we want to go at the national level? Or is it better to lean-in in San Francisco or in Phoenix so that we’re speaking directly to the people who can ride with us in the near term? You want to be realistic there.

Of course we share certain announcements more broadly, but we are always really careful not to feed that hype that we’ve all worked really carefully to evolve beyond — and to be so specific about where it’s available and what people can expect next. We’ve done a lot of work on trust and safety, and we won’t stop. But as we welcome more and more riders, we’re now serving over 10,000 a week across San Francisco and Phoenix and scaling up rapidly, we are in a position to lean into that excitement factor.

SG: To me, the trick of doing this job well is when you make that shift from the reactive to the proactive. How do you set up your team to be proactive? Especially when some random things pop up, like a car stalls out in the middle of the street and someone posts a photo of it on Twitter. How do you keep your team proactive through that?

SP: Whether it’s on the marketing side, the communications side, or the public affairs side, a lot of what we’re anchoring to, in terms of predictable milestones or a calendar we can actually build out together, is going to be shaped by improvements in our technology that will result in additional scope and/or scale. We’re working alongside our teams to be able to build those stories and land them in an appropriate way. The goal these days is to get people to download the app and take a ride.

We also have more live moments that we’re able to build some excitement around and be more proactive on. It was awesome for the Super Bowl this year, which was obviously in Phoenix, we used that as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for larger scale exposure to Waymo. Not just to the local Phoenix folks, but all the tourists who are coming to town for the game. We saw tremendous tailwinds from that experience with so many new folks hopping in the car. We want to take advantage of those bigger public moments to showcase our technology and show how it can transform mobility for folks everywhere.

There’s always the reactive stuff, and that’s true at any company. In some ways for us, it’s really positive stuff. There was this amazing TikTok video that hit, it was by an 81 year old Navy vet that goes by Patriotic Kenny. He and his colleague, another elderly man who’s actually deaf, took a ride. Their explosive love for this experience was delivered with so much excitement and authenticity, two older gentlemen taking a ride in a vehicle with no human driver and really just seeing the possibilities. Obviously that wasn’t anything we did, it was just out there in the universe and we were able to help promote that and amplify that in any way we could.

There’s also the stuff that is a little bit tougher to deal with. A vehicle can get caught in a situation that’s not ideal, and it’s something that causes some public curiosity because these cars do have sensors on them and they look very different — folks tend to take a picture and post it on social. In that case, we acknowledge that while the driving behavior was safe, it’s obviously less than ideal, and here’s what we’re doing to improve it. We really try to own that with folks while also educating that at base, we are out there performing in a very safe way. We’re learning really quickly and always trying to improve the behavior so that it doesn’t happen again. We don’t want to run away from those things, but we want to contextualize them.

SG: How are you now contextualizing the entire industry, relative to what competitors are doing? When you started, there were many players and a lot of hype.

SP: When I first joined back in 2018, it was still very much the hype cycle. You had a lot of journalists that were very interested in this, but it was still carving out its own space. You had some who were tech journalists in the Valley and others who were covering the more traditional automotive sector (many of them were Detroit based). Over time, it’s been fascinating to see folks dig in so deeply and become the true AV experts. Now in 2023, they have been sitting with AV technology for years and have a really deep understanding of it. It’s a really thoughtful public conversation. Credit to the expertise that they’ve developed in a new niche.

On the other hand, one thing that’s common no matter what industry you’re in, is press release fatigue. That was certainly true for those early days of AV, when everything was a “huge” announcement. Now we certainly try to be more discerning around what news we’re sharing, how we’re sharing it, and making sure that it’s clear and specific around what we’re announcing. We’re also not wasting your time with something that’s not worth the limited time of a journalist. We’re trying to respect everybody on both sides.

With a brand new technology that’s got so much interest from regulators — because literal robots are rolling down streets alongside pedestrians and cyclists and other vulnerable road users — safety matters. We’ve got to get this right. One way we’ve tried to lead that larger industry wide conversation is to put out the data that helps people understand how we are evaluating the progress of our technology and how we’re continuously improving.

That helps inform our competitors and others in the industry, and helps influence them to do the same thing. But also for policy makers, regulators, national, state, local, and even on the international level who see this, it helps them learn and gives them an opportunity to interact with our team and ask questions. It helps everyone learn more and gain trust in this technology.

SG: How important is it that you hold both the marketing, public affairs and comms roles, all in one? How does that make you better at your job?

SP: It’s the most impactful way to deliver an aligned message in a space where there’s a lot of complexity. There’s still so many people who don’t understand it. So being able to shape a narrative together and pull on all those different levers as a team, just makes it that much more impactful.

For example, we recently shared that we’ve developed a technology that allows a rider to make a safe exit — meaning that when they get out, they’re not going to door an oncoming cyclist, another car, or a pedestrian. As that was coming to bear, we explored different ways that we could have that conversation with external stakeholders. Our PR team did a great job sharing this with CNET, for example, and invited them for a ride. They were able to test it themselves and really did some deep reporting there. Likewise, our public affairs teams brought this technology to some of our cyclist organization partners down in Phoenix, Tempe, and elsewhere, and said, try it out. Let’s take a ride. Come talk to some of our software engineers who helped develop this and learn a little bit more.

It was great because even some of those organizations who were skeptical about autonomous vehicles were so pleased to learn about this and understand that we, as a company, heard them and we felt the same thing. And then we’re able to represent that across our social channels, in partnership with the marketing team. The truth is, they’re across all of these different teams and it’s about making sure we get it out there in a way that really drives impact and deeper understanding. It’s the right thing for any business, to have that aligned narrative shared in a way that makes sense collaboratively for those different stakeholders.

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