Newsroom Ink

The Tom Mattia Tapes: Chapter One - The Art of Storytelling Communications

Blog post   •   May 03, 2012 12:02 EDT

As chair of Edelman China, Tom Mattia will be 9000 miles from his retirement home outside of Austin. Photo: Dan Stroud/Newsroom Ink

© by Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

The lamps sitting in living room near the picture window overlooking the almost dry Pedernales River have yellow stickies hanging from their shades as if prepared for a garage sale. So do the tables upon which they sit, as well as the picture window itself. Scribbled upon each sticky is not a rock bottom sale price, but instead the name of each in Chinese Mandarin accompanied by a phonetic pronunciation.

This is how Tom Mattia is preparing to come out of retirement a second time and return to China as chairman of Edelman China.

Mattia, who retired from Coca-Cola as Senior Vice President of global Public Affairs and Communications in March 2009, has served as the senior communications officer of two Fortune 100 companies, directly counseled four CEOs and managed reputational issues for four major global brands — Coca-Cola, FordIBM, and EDS.

Shortly after retiring from Coke and purchasing the retirement home on the banks of the Pedernales outside of Austin, he was enticed out of retirement by Yale University to become the chief communications officer and special advisor to the president.

A native of New Jersey, Mattia graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in journalism. In 1973 he started his career along the boardwalks of Atlantic City working as a reporter for the newspaper covering local government.

“I studied journalism because at the time Rutger’s only had two co-ed majors, one was journalism and one was landscape architecture.,” explained Mattia on his career strategy. “I actually started in landscape architecture but I couldn’t draw a tree.”

After working for more than 10 years as a journalist, mostly in the northeast, he answered a blind ad in the back of Editor and Publisher and ended up at IBM for ten years.

The job turned out to be an important career opportunity for him.

“IBM at the time, and even today, has a wonderful, strong rich communications department.” said Matia. “It is where I got my business degree.”

“It took me about three years to transition from being a journalist who decided to do in-house communication to someone who considered himself a corporate communicator, a public relations professional,” he explained. “I was very proud of my years as a journalist, but once I got into corporate communications and public relations and saw its connectivity to the larger enterprise, I felt very proud of the role I played in that environment.”

Mattia views journalism like the river flowing outside his window - “an inch deep and a mile wide; that is the nature of the business.” Journalists have a broad knowledge of a wide variety of subjects, but rarely the opportunity to drill down deep into a specific subject matter.

PR professionals, on the other hand, are given the opportunity to drill down and understand how the core business runs and learn what it is about. According to Mattia, “to be successful and advance your career, you have to take your skill set and match it to the business.”

After leaving IBM he turned to the agency world, running the Asian operations of Hill and Knowlton from the Hong Kong office. He returned to the US to work for Ford, doing mainly international communications.

As the new century began so did a new chapter in Mattia’s life. In 2000 he became Vice-President of Global Communications and Advertising for Electronic Data Systems (EDS).

His five years at EDS, a company established by H. Ross Perot in 1962, could be summarized as a roller-coaster ride. He oversaw the company reputation from meteoric rise to crash and return.

In 2002, EDS had a year from hell and a CEO in turmoil. In the weak economy its stock headed down instead of up; the company got hammered by the bankruptcies of WorldCom, US Airways, and United Airlines; and in the third quarter it had a disastrous earnings miss that sent its already battered stock from $36 to $12 in two days.

Understanding the fundamentals of a business for Mattia is the cornerstone of communications. Over the years he has come up with four guiding principals:

  1. First and foremost, understand the business.
  2. Create a central storyline with a core message that is delivered from pixel to the big picture.
  3. Develop an integrated communications plan aligned with/endorsed by senior management and followed by every communicator in the organization.
  4. Communicate from the inside out, ensuring that employees are the first to be informed and engaged.

It was during his time at EDS that he launched an effective tool for communications that has remained central to his core communication philosophy – storytelling.

“It is really critical to get you people onside early,” Mattia said. “It is what we did at EDS which at the time was 260,000 people, almost all of them working in a client setting so it wasn’t as though they had a corporate home or even a branch off that was EDS branded. Storytelling for us, telling the story of what our people do and how it helped other people, started to build a esprit decorps about the good work going on all over the world that had been overlooked before. It is what brought us back from the brink.”

Often businesses, especially those that have been established for a while, go along with the assumption that everyone in the business knows what the business is about. According to Mattia, “What you end up with is six blind men and an elephant, everyone knows about their portion of the business but cannot see the elephant in the room – the big picture of what the business is and where it is headed.”

To accurately tell the story of a company you must first engage its people. At Coca-Cola that meant giving everyone in the business an understanding of the five “P's" - Profit, People, Plant, Partners and Portfolio – and how they interact with each other.

From these “P’s” the strategic communication plan is created for the company, telling its story one, three and five years into the future. From that plan comes the basic messaging set that has a crisp central theme running through all communications.

According to Mattia a company needs only one or two key messages that everyone has to bake into their messaging set. This allows a big diffuse organization to have focus, putting its throw weight in a position to have real impact.

Correctly positioned, a strategic communication plan having a unified theme gives communicators in the various businesses a lot of flexibility. The importance is in the end the centralized message is carried through all of the companies various business units.

“Successful communications understands and defines the DNA of a business,” Mattia said. “What is it that makes us who we are, and makes us different from other players in the field?”

Next - The Tom Mattia Tapes: Chapter Two - Strange Bedfellows

 About the Author:

Ed Lallo is founder and CEO of Newsroom Ink; a company that believes in the power of storytelling brand journalism to create credible, influential news sites and stories for clients that enhance the reputation of both brand and company.  It achieves a competitive difference by creating credible and influential news – telling a company’s stories on a dynamic newsroom platform.
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