Avaya’s EMEA PR head Stacey Torman is a Silicon Valley veteran who, these days, prefers the charms of London. Torman has spent five years at Avaya, and combines an outspoken attitude with considerable tech PR savvy.
After starting her career at Blanc & Otus, Torman shifted to Oracle, before stints at Fleishman-Hillard and Bite. She recently sat down with the Holmes Report to discuss the dramatic changes in tech PR, the benefits of an old-school approach, and why The Karate Kid and The Godfather are the two most important movies for comms pros.
You’ve had the same PR firm (Fleishman-Hillard) for a long time in EMEA, yet most tech companies seem to review every two or three years.
I don’t understand that. We just went through a global review. I didn’t see any need to put up EMEA. As the client if you don’t know what people are doing, that’s kind of your fault. The interesting thing is that when people just review for a review’s sake. The problem I see with that is that you end up inevitably with discontinuity after six months. The agency is focused on winning the business instead of winning the stories. If an agency is not functioning well, the client has to work with them to make them function well.
You’ve worked with a lot of agencies. Would you say that view of long-term relationships is uncommon?
It’s a client-agency thing - you need the right chemistry. It’s down to you as a client to motivate an agency team. If you can personally motivate them, they are going to be a lot more invested in your business. I take personal interest in them - or I think you get worse results. I would never tell my boss that we missed our targets because it’s the agency’s fault. That is the biggest falsehood. That is your responsibility.
Do you feel like it’s getting harder to tell Avaya's story because there is so much new technology out there?
I don’t think it’s harder to tell the story but it’s harder to break through the noise barrier. At the same time a really well-crafted story pitch will find its home. If you’re just spamming reporters that won’t work. Being able to have those relationships, and being able to tell the story properly, that’s what makes the difference. The noise level for tech is much too high. It’s also being smart - you don’t want to make an announcement when Apple is launching its new iPhone.
From a comms perspective, what is the biggest challenge you face in your job?
It’s always hard to work for an MNC company in Europe and make it local and relevant. We’ve done a really good job in our core markets - UK, Russia Germany and France. That’s the key - being able to make it relevant and local. We hold journalist drinks once a quarter, and we get our executives to interact with the journalists. If you have something in common with them, that helps you have a conversation and explain our technology in a way they will understood.
Some companies would not be comfortable with that approach.
At Oracle, the first time I said I was going to do it, I had some pushback from corporate. At some point, you have to be able to trust your executives. It could be considered a risk, but I think it’s a lot more beneficial to know our executives as people rather than suits in a chair. And at its root Avaya’s technology is about communication. If we can’t reach people on their level then we are not doing it right.
How has tech PR changed, now that technology is so intrinsic to everyday life?
Most agencies are still set up to have tech, consumer and corporate practice. Technology now is part of consumer, part of corporate, part of public affairs. Nobody can live a life without being touched by technology in some way. Being able to tell the human story, the customer story is what sets you apart. Some of that storytelling has possibly been replaced by technologies like Facebook and Twitter - you can get opinions out and connect people, but they don’t really connect people, they just connect handles.
At the end of the day, none of my relationships are solely on Facebook and Twitter. It has to start with personal relationships. Kids who are recently out of school, sometimes need to be taught to take a reporter out. That is becoming a lost art. I personally think there is no substitute for it. I don’t take a social media link as seriously as a face-to-face conversation.
So despite all of the futuristic technology, the old-school PR approach is still important?
Absolutely. Some of the journalists I have met have become really important friends to me. A lot of the journalists I talk to, they are people. They have good days, they have bad days. Some have a good sense of humour and some don’t. It would be very difficult to do my job if I had to treat everybody the same way. You have to know what interests them or you’re not going to have a good conversation with them.
It’s a question of having the judgment to give the right advice. I used to make everyone I mentored go get two movies - The Godfather and The Karate Kid. The Karate Kid, because it teaches you to do everything over and over again until it’s perfect. The Godfather because of the axiom ‘business is not personal’. If you take everything personally, you will have a very short career. It’s up to us to try and change those perceptions.