Tom Mattia – Strange Bedfellows

by / Newsroom Ink on 04/30/2012

Tom Mattia, the new chair for Edelman China, will trade the bluebonnets and wildflowers or the Texas Hill Country for the rice paddies of China. Photo: Dan Stroud/Newsroom Ink

Tom Mattia, former Global Head of Communications for Coke and EDS and Chief Communications Officer at Yale University, sat down with Newsroom Ink’s Ed Lallo to discuss public relations and  communications.

by Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“Mr. Gutenberg, what do you think you will print after the Bible?”

That’s the analogy Tom Mattia, the new chair for Edelman China, uses when comparing the future of digital and social media to past communication trends.

“I think we are still learning about how digital and social media can be used effectively as a communications tool,” said Mattia, sitting in the living room of his Texas Hill Country home.

Tom Mattia – The Art of Storytelling Communications

At the age of 63, Mattia sees himself as both teacher and student. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“The good news is that technology keeps changing. The bad news is that we tend to chase the technology and forget the importance of content.”

Sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus and others don’t worry or care about content. Their only concern is providing the venue to distribute content. Self-propagating content on these sites is important in bringing audiences to a brand. The brand, however, must have an effective message for the story to be successful.

At the age of 63, Mattia sees himself as both teacher and student. As a teacher, he can help younger people set things in a deeper, broader context. They, in turn, can help him use current tools more effectively to accomplish his goals.

“I rely on the young to help me understand how the technology is changing and what capabilities that gives me,” he explained. “In return, I’ll keep reminding them they must have a good, solid story to tell and a definite point of view.”

To have a seat at any table – from the C-suite down – communications professionals must come with a story built on an informed point of view to effectively argue their position. Winning the discussion, in itself, is not important. What’s important is influencing its direction and advancing the conversation.

Springfield Lewis

“Working with Tom improves your game as you strengthen the business,” said Springfield Lewis, vice president of strategic communications at Newsroom Ink and former director of communications under Mattia at EDS. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“Working with Tom improves your game as you strengthen the business,” said Springfield Lewis, vice president of strategic communications at Newsroom Ink and former director of communications under Mattia at EDS.

“Tom expects you to take a stand, know your stuff cold and keep your blade sharp. The same goes for him. And when things get rough, he’s right there with you.”

Lewis recalled his first encounter with Mattia: “We were working for IBM in New York. I was walking down the hall and heard a booming voice, driving home a point. Turns out it was Tom, making his case – with no bones about it. I heard him before I ever met him. Years later, he still makes an impression that resonates.”

Mattia believes in working loud. Like a true Italian, he talks not only with words, but also with hands flying in every direction a mile a minute.

“The key to assembling a good communications team is always hire someone smarter than you,” he explained. “Don’t be afraid of other people’s skills and talents. The fact is you want people who are much better than you are.”

The worse thing that a communications manager within an organization can do is being in a position as the sole conduit for company information.

Mattia believes in empowering his teams with defined areas of responsibility he calls “sandboxes.” Communicators, he feels, should be given a well-defined sandbox. As long as they work inside that sandbox, they are empowered to handle their jobs in the way they see fit. It is when they get to the edges of the sandbox, and are bumping up next to someone else’s sandbox, that guidance from managers should be sought.

“By having a define space of work, and being totally empowered in that space of work, allows people to go off and do great things,” he said. “Often, they will come up with great ideas way outside their sandbox that they share.”

At the end of the day, successful management is a “benevolent dictatorship.” Everyone doesn’t get to vote, but managing a team for Mattia can be broken down into five rules:

    1. Always hire people smarter than you.
    2. Don’t be afraid of other people’s skills and talents.
    3. Give team members the visibility they deserve throughout the organization.
    4. Praise them as loudly as you criticize them – and for him, that can be pretty loud.
    5. Always, always have their back.

“The flip side of empowering and letting everyone have visibility is that if anything goes wrong, they never take the hit – or at least, they never take it alone – because that is where you are the leader,” said Mattia.

“If for some reason, a project from a member of your team does not go well, you stand up in front of them because it is your organization. You never ever leave them alone, and you never ever let them take responsibility for the failure.”

So, what exactly does Mattia do?

“Richard Edelman will tell you PR is what we do, I will tell you communications is what we do,” he said. “I don’t know if we differ in what we do, maybe just the way we describe it.”

Communications for Mattia is also a partnership with the media. Digital capabilities are allowing communications to flow around traditional media, but traditional media is increasing flowing into digital media. He believes communications is a broader envelope that combines: media relations, survey work, consulting, stakeholder communications and more.

“What we do is help organizations understand who and what they are, and distill that into understandable and rememberable positioning to their various stakeholders,” he said. “To put it more simply, our job is to help an organization present itself in the best possible light to everyone who touches it.”

Mattia views journalism like the river flowing outside his window - “an inch deep and a mile wide; that is the nature of the business.” Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

Like a true Italian, Mattia talks not only with words, but also with hands flying in every direction a mile a minute. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

To present itself this way, an organization must have a communications team that can crisply tell a brand’s story. Mattia holds a unique view on suitable candidates for his teams, often pairing together some very strange bedfellows.

He prefers job candidates who studied journalism or mass communications because they understand how to tell a story. But interestingly, Mattia also likes lawyers.

“I’ve always looked to hire people that have spent some time in the media,” he said. “In the old days, it was a newspaper journalist, but today it is pretty expansive. I do look for people that have been conveyers of news because I really don’t think you can do our job unless you understand the other side of the equation.

“I also like lawyers because if you get a good lawyer that can think and write crisply, it also is a good basis for what we do.”

Knowing the basics of what makes a well-told story is the key to successful communications. The job of any good communicator, whether a lawyer or journalist, is to synthesize information so it can be easily understood by different audiences.

“What I try to do in the teams I assemble is get strong storytellers and experts in social media and have them train each other in their expertise,” he said.

“The social media person may never be the best storyteller, but they will understand. And the storyteller may never be the best social media expert, but they will understand. Together, they start using each other’s talents more effectively and that broadens the base.”

For Mattia, storytelling remains the critical skill for all communications. He believes an effective story can even be told in 140 characters on Twitter as a tease to a link to a larger, more in-depth article.

“Storytelling is a topic that a lot of people talk about, but few people really spend the time to develop. More people need to do that in order to have long-term impact so you are not playing Groundhog Day every time a problem reappears,” he said, emphatically waving his hands to drive home his point.

“You have to set a content-rich base. Otherwise, you Tweet yourself away, spinning off on current events.”

It is important to have a set site as the storytelling base for all social media discussion. A site that allows an organization’s various audiences to get a clear understanding of who you are and what you stand for – rather than some preconception based on the latest good or bad Tweet or Facebook post.

As things evolve, Mattia believes social media will offer the opportunity to bring larger audiences to organizations and their brands down the road.

No matter the media, he will continue to preach the fundamentals: “Once they are here, you still need to have a set message. You still need to have a good, solid story to tell.”

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