Axios Communicators

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February 22, 2024

Welcome back!

  • In the first edition of this newsletter, we declared that every CEO needs to be a communicator β€” and we love to say, 'I told you so.' More on that below ...
  • 🀠 But, first: Going to SXSW? Me too! Let's meet up.

Today's newsletter is 1,653 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: How Lyft bounced back

Animated illustration of a dial on a gas meter moving from left to right, with a thumbs down symbol replacing "Empty" and a thumbs up symbol replacing "Full".

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Lyft's very visible, high-profile mistake β€” a typo in last week's earning release that affected the stock price β€” warranted an equally visible and high-profile response.

Why it matters: Typically, companies in crisis limit a CEO's press exposure, issue a broad statement and go underground until the news cycle has passed.

  • Lyft CEO David Risher, on the other hand, was very vocal and successfully alleviated market concerns after the stock's wild ride in after-hours trading Feb. 13, shifted the public narrative and won major props internally.

Between the lines: Because the Lyft team avoided the "no comment" approach, they were able to move coverage sentiment in a positive direction, according to Muck Rack data.

  • A recent analysis of 200 news articles about tech companies found that replacing "no comment" with even a simple response increased sentiment by an average of 5% to 7%, according to a report from Valentine Advisors.

What they're saying: Lyft already had the attention of all of the business press, so it was smart to make the most of it, says one longtime communications executive who asked to speak on background.

  • "There was so much attention being paid to the mistake, but anyone who's reading the article about the mistake is also going to read that the company had an incredible quarter," the executive said.

After the clerical error, Risher gave on-camera interviews to CNBC, Bloomberg TV, Fox Business and Yahoo Finance and managed to toggle between authentic and on message.

Zoom in: By going on national TV, owning up to the mistake and defending his employees and their performance over the last quarter, Risher also won a lot of favor internally.

  • "People truly appreciated it," said one former Lyft employee. "It showed what kind of leader he is and also showed that he's not afraid to take on difficult questions or discuss his vision for the company."
  • Plus, the investor audience appeared more focused on the company's performance than the typo. In fact, investor reports reviewed by Axios showed no mention of the error.

Of note: Risher also put his penchant for communications on display last year when he took to social media to help find a rider's missing cat, which increased goodwill among many riders.

The bottom line: In moments of crisis, sometimes it's best to opt for more communication, not less.

Case in point ... πŸ‘‡πŸ»

2. Chart: Lyft shifts sentiment

Sentiment of Lyft's recent media coverage
Data: Muck Rack; Chart: Axios Visuals

Lyft not only survived the negative news cycle, it was actually able to spin it in a positive light.

By the numbers: Favorable coverage of Lyft nearly doubled by the end of the week, according to a sentiment analysis by Muck Rack.

  • The rideshare company saw most negative coverage (42%) immediately following the incorrect earnings release.
  • Yes, but: Sentiment spiked in the days following, with it peaking at 73% on Friday, Feb. 16.

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3. Axios interview: Mark Smucker's secret weapon

Screenshot of the uncrustables commercial featuring a cartoon PB&J sandwich

Screenshot: Smucker's/YouTube

J.M. Smucker β€”the food and beverage manufacturer behind brands like Smucker's jelly, Jif peanut butter, Folgers coffee and Twinkies β€” is leaning on marketing and communications to unite its employee base and build its next $1 billion brand.

Why it matters: Since taking the helm in 2016, CEO Mark Smucker told Axios he has prioritized communication and views it as a lever for maintaining competitive advantage.

State of play: To connect with external audiences, Smucker has ramped up its brand marketing efforts.

  • Partnerships with athletes who eat copious amounts of Uncrustables β€” the Baltimore Ravens consume about 7,500 per season, for example β€” have been an authentic way to connect with new consumers.
  • And the brand's partnership with the NFL-playing Kelce brothers has really moved the product.

What they're saying: "It was a really organic partnership," says Smucker. "Travis Kelce mentioned that he eats Uncrustables more than anything else, so we were able to engage with the brothers and sponsor three of their podcast episodes … and actually, they riffed on Uncrustables for several minutes, giving the brand great exposure."

Zoom in: This rise in demand has led to the opening of a new factory, which means more deskless workers.

  • Of its 9,000 employees, about two-thirds are working in manufacturing centers.
  • Smucker has leaned on internal communications, site visits, monthly town hall meetings and managerial communications to keep employees engaged.

Getting in front of employees is important, says Smucker.

  • "It can't be a one-way conversation, it has to be two-way. So those are some of the things that we do to try to keep all of our employees engaged β€” and we have the philosophy that if every employee understands what our strategy is, then we will continue to win."

What's next: Smucker acquired Hostess for $5.6 billion in 2023, and the integration has required very detailed communication strategies, says Smucker.

  • "We've done many of these in the past β€” and when they are successful, it's because we communicate."

πŸ“§ Is your CEO a thoughtful communicator? Tell me more.

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4. Report: Only half of TikTok users actually post on the platform

Share of U.S. adults using TikTok who have posted on the platform
Data: Pew Research Center; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

The top 25% of TikTok users produce 98% of the public videos found on the platform, according to a report from Pew Research Center.

Why it matters: Americans are flocking to short-form video platforms like TikTok for news and information, which means a small number of active users have increasing influence.

State of play: Pew Research surveyed 2,745 U.S. adult TikTok users in August 2023 and found while one-third of adults are on TikTok, only about half actually post content on the platform.

By the numbers: Users between the ages 35-49 are are more likely to post on TikTok than other age demographic, according to the report.

  • Roughly half of users between the ages of 18-34 have never posted and 70% of all users lack information in the bio of their accounts.
  • Users that do post have put up a total of six public videos and received an average of 149 "likes" in return.
  • Meanwhile, 49% of users have never received a "like" and the average adult is followed by just 36 accounts.

Between the lines: This signals that most content is discovered through the "for you" page, and 40% of users say this content is either extremely or very interesting to them.

The big picture: This is in line with user habits across other social media platforms, says Samuel Bestvater, computational social scientist for Pew.

  • Yes, but: Other platforms see some type of posting β€” whether it's a short tweet or Facebook status update β€” while TikTok sees little to nothing.

What they're saying: That's likely due to the platform's barrier to entry, says Bestvater.

  • "If I were to speculate, I would say that a big part of that is because creating videos is a more involved process than just typing out a tweet β€” and that could be a big part of what's driving that difference in posting behavior."

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5. Communicator spotlight: Micky Onvural, chief marketing officer for TIAA

Photo illustration collage of Micky Onvural surrounded by abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: TIAA

As chief marketing officer for retirement services firm TIAA, Micky Onvural is tasked with grabbing an audience's attention and convincing them to engage with TIAA's products.

  • Why it matters: As one of the few to have jumped between CMO and CEO roles, Onvural is adept at tying comms and marketing to the overall business.

πŸ“How she got here: Onvural held several marketing and communications roles at eBay, Trulia and Kellogg's before joining e-commerce company Bonobos as chief marketing officer. After two years in the role, she was promoted to CEO, where she served for roughly four years.

  • Onvural joined TIAA in 2022 and has "repositioned marketing and communications as a strategic growth lever" for the business.

πŸ— How it's structured: She oversees a team of nine direct reports who manage client and brand marketing, internal and external communications, creative services, martech and marketing analytics, and the TIAA Institute.

πŸ—£What she's saying: Holding the CEO role gave her a deeper appreciation for how the total business works and the role of marketing and communications to unlock growth, says Onvural.

  • "It's made me very, very focused on the outcomes and the bottom line impact of our marketing and communications efforts. Many people say to me, why did you go backwards from being CEO to CMO? And I did it because I wanted to bring that kind of mindset into a CMO role," she told Axios.
  • Communicators "have to know the business as well, if not better than, the CEO. You have to deeply understand the products and services, how they're different, how they're adding unique value to the business, but also deeply understand the competitive landscape and who the audience is."

πŸ“ˆ Trend spot: How irreverent marketing can help "disruptor" brands β€” like Oatly β€” break through.

  • "Obviously Oatly is disrupting a category at large with a very differentiated product, but I think the reason they're going to win is because they have taken a very disruptive approach of how they market," says Onvural.

🧠 Best advice: "Always start with why."

Go deeper ... read the full spotlight.

6. Private equity strikes again: Narrative Strategies sells stake

Narrative's founding partners Patrick O'Connor, Ken Spain Katie Mitchell and Ed Mullen. Photo courtesy of Narrative Strategies.

Narrative's founding partners (from left), Patrick O'Connor, Ken Spain, Katie Mitchell and Ed Mullen. Photo: Courtesy of Narrative Strategies

D.C.-based public affairs firm Narrative Strategies has sold a majority stake to New York private equity firm Clarion Capital Partners, Axios first learned.

Why it matters: The investment is the latest example of a private equity firm taking a stake in a public affairs company as corporations brace for more scrutiny β€” and potentially regulation β€” out of Washington.

Zoom in: The deal will allow the firm to expand its business and open new offices across the country.

  • Narrative was founded in 2019 by former Wall Street Journal reporter Patrick O'Connor and political operatives Ken Spain, Ed Mullen and Katie Mitchell.
  • The bipartisan firm has 65 employees who support clients across the Fortune 500, trade associations, nonprofits and law firms.
  • Rosemarie Calabro Tully and Andrew Fimka were named partners last year.

Zoom out: PE firms, as well as New York and London PR behemoths, have been on a shopping spree for public affairs agencies that understand β€” and influence β€” the political world.

Go deeper.

7. πŸ—£ 1 quote to-go

"You can't execute it if you can't communicate it."
β€” Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Tuck School of Business, wrote in a recent LinkedIn post.

πŸ™πŸ» Thanks for reading! And thanks to editors Nicholas Johnston and Kathie Bozanich for their help with the newsletter each week.

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