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How Cisco Is Harnessing the Power of PR Content — Fired Up by Social Media — to Revolutionize Its Brand: An Interview with John Earnhardt

By Richard Carufel, Editor, Daily 'Dog

When Cisco Systems launched "The Network" in 2011 in an effort to fully embrace the communication strategy of brand journalism, the networking-equipment giant was among the first to shed the traditional corporate newsroom model — one that only promoted news about its own brand — to become a true newsroom of the future. The initiative was spearheaded by John Earnhardt, the company's director of corporate communications and resident social and new media guru.

By embracing the brand journalism communication strategy — with redesigned content meant to be engaging, share-worthy and viral — The Network became a news portal that not only focused on news about Cisco, but also reported on topics of interest to a wider audience.

More important for communicators, Cisco's newsroom became a standard for brand journalism for other corporations that hoped to revamp their own newsrooms, and has earned the accolades of the comms industry.

Earnhardt manages the social media marketing team responsible for The Network, along with other corpcomms channels such as "The Platform" blog, Cisco's Facebook page, the company's Twitter feed (@CiscoSystems—for which Earnhardt was awarded the 2010 B2B Twitterer of the Year), LinkedIn, Ustream and Flickr sites. He also manages the PR team's media strategy, corporate op-ed program, broadcast media strategy and executive media training. He is also the "blogger-in-chief" and "tweeter-in-chief" for the company.

Earnhardt joined Cisco in 1999 as corporate PR manager, and it was when he managed policy communications in Cisco's Global Policy and Government Affairs department — responsible for using communications channels to advance Cisco's state, federal and global public policy objectives — that he started the first blog for Cisco in 2005.

Ever since, he has been at the forefront of social innovation in the rapidly advancing genre. Among numerous other recognitions, Earnhardt and his team recently won Bulldog Reporter's Grand Prize for "Best Use of Digital/Social for a Digital/Social Communications Campaign of the Year" at the 2012 Bulldog Digital/Social PR Awards for Outstanding Achievements by Agencies and Individuals in PR and Corporate Communications.

We caught up with John in between his global travels to see what's new at Cisco — and find out how his experience can inform other PR pros and communicators about the effective use of social media strategies.

Social media marketing is no longer a shiny new toy, but has been firmly integrated into most firms' communications strategy. How is social media integrated at Cisco? How is it a part of each person's job in the PR, marketing and communications functions? How has it been integrated further across the organization?

We have over 66,000 employees globally and we think that all of them can play a role in social media. They all have their particular expertise and they all have their audiences. Training employees in social is a priority for us and we have been on that journey since we started blogging externally starting in 2005. We make clear, however, that the vast majority of employees represent themselves and their own thoughts on social. Not everyone can or should be a spokesperson for the company. Certainly, communications and marketing own the corporate channels and messages and we need to drive consistent, engageable content through those channels.

Even though audiences easily merge in social, we divide ourselves by audience. Marketing's audience is primarily customers. Communications' audience is influencers writ large (IR, AR, PR) and the general public. We also have many "corporate" social profiles that drive their particular expertise, be it services, channels, support or a particular technology like wireless or security. This is where they grow and own their audiences and communicate and engage on the relevant topics of mutual interest.

What kind of metrics does Cisco track to show ROI for social media efforts? Which KPIs are important there? Can you give me an example?

Marketing has always been better at metrics than communications, but share of voice and sentiment are more easily tracked and measured by us in social as a part of overall brand impact. We don't necessarily look at social as a different part of what we do, but as a part of the entire marketing mix (just as PR). As for KPI's, it really depends on the campaign or objective, but it is fair to say that that impact can be more easily measured by who and how many have engaged with your content. This is easily trackable and certainly we attempt to target this as much as possible to the audiences we are trying to reach.

Engagement, to me, is the ultimate compliment. Someone thought enough about your content to share it within their social footprint. This validation is critical to building long-term relationships in the social sphere — and it absolutely has to be a two-way relationship. Ultimately, social is about offering some kind of value to the audience. Value is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but it comes in many forms. And the more content you offer and the more engagement you have with your audience, the easier it is to give them what they want.

What's your advice for B2B companies that are still struggling with this?

With any campaign, objective or tactic, I always start with two simple questions: 1) What is our goal?, and; 2) Who is the audience we are trying to reach? Boiling the ocean is impossible, but if you clearly know what your goal is and which audience you are trying to reach upfront, then it makes the tactics behind the strategy much easier.

What can a B2B company teach a B2C company when it comes to social media engagement?

B2B isn't as "sexy" to sell as an energy or coffee drink or a smartphone, perhaps, but the tactics and targeting for social are quite similar. The audiences are obviously very different, but the goals are the same. We are both trying to spread the good word on our products to a potential consumer or influencer. Knowing your audience is the critical part of the formula — and through social, they "vote" with their engagement on what they like, so you learn more and more about them with each piece of content.

These days, content marketing and branded content/brand journalism are the "shiny new toys" in the marcom arsenal. What innovative things is Cisco doing in terms of branded content/content marketing?

We are working with former journalists from BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, etc. to produce our featured content. We ask them to tell stories about technologies impact on daily lives in the areas of technology that we care about, [such as] wireless, security, collaboration, video. We started this several years ago and are having great success in helping our audiences understand the impact of technology on their lives, even from a B2B company.

What are your tips for others in PR when it comes to leveraging content marketing?

Here are my 5 simple rules for good company content:

1. Tell good stories.

2. Give value to your reader/follower (which can be knowledge, humor, news-you-can-use — or, yes, a coupon!).

3. Don't hurt your company.

4. Don't help a competitor.

5. Use as many different types as content as you can think of — written, video, infographics, photos, cartoons, interactive quizzes, and so on. Variety is the spice of life and it keeps your audience engaged and interested, as well as your producers of content.

Can you describe any recent changes in the communications department and function at Cisco?

Change is a constant at Cisco — in communications and in the company as a whole. We are a pretty self-critical bunch. We are always trying to improve and ask ourselves what we can do better. We listen to feedback very carefully and seriously and try to improve our customer's experience each and every transaction. We try not to lose sight of our successes, but we do quickly move on from them. In technology, you have to have a short memory — of both the good stuff and the bad stuff — or you'll get bogged down quickly in what I call "navel gazing" (or sometimes called "analysis paralysis"). Be like a shark —always move, or you die.

How do you see the communications function changing across the board (beyond Cisco)?

This may be a personally parochial
answer, as I lead the social media team within communications, but I think social media will only grow exponentially in importance in communications. It cannot be controlled by marketing or communications, but certainly needs to be directed by both of them. We are in a market transition with the media right now and it is anyone's guess how it will ultimately play out. It is fair to say that entities will still need channels to communicate with their audiences regardless of whether the local newspaper exists or not.

So, those companies that are building their own channels and communities (Facebook, blogs, websites, Twitter, LinkedIn, Weibo, etc.) are the ones that will be able to communicate effectively regardless of the media. Don't get me wrong, we still want to tell our best stories through or with the media as their "validation" makes our communications more relevant, but we can't tell all our stories through them anymore…either because we are producing and distributing our own stories through our own sites (as we are with "The Network") or because we feel we can best target the audience we are trying to reach and so we do that directly.

What's next? What upcoming or future developments do you think will most impact communications in 2013?

Mobile is only going to get bigger in 2013. If you don't have a mobile strategy to reach your customers: Get. One. Now. More and more people access content from their smart phone or tablets, so you have to have as good (or better) an experience on mobile as you do on a computer. And, when you think about your global audience, many of the people in the countries we do business in will never have a computer — their lives are run from a smartphone and we have to be available to them on that platform.

What are your primary responsibilities these days?

I run the corporate PR team, which consists of finance, M&A, legal, marketing, CEO, among others — all your non-product PR issues. I also run the social media communications team, which produces content for the company as well as manages our major corporate social communities [like] Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and our corporate blog.

What do you love most about your job?

I get to be creative. Cisco allows you to take calculated risks and lets you work your expertise in your own space. We have a lot of smart people at Cisco, but we all have specialties and no one is so bold as to attempt to micromanage someone else's specialty.

What's your favorite hobby in your off time? What's your favorite band?

Hanging out with my family is my favorite thing to do in my off time. We like to go to the pool, hike, swim and be as active as possible. With a six-year old boy who is sports crazy, we have to stay active, and he is into all sports right now. Favorite band has to be the Rolling Stones, but I'm a big Jack Johnson fan as well.

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