Once ranked number one in Fortune’s annual survey of America’s Most Admired Companies, by 1993—under the leadership of John Akers—IBM had fallen to number 354, and there were those who predicted that the iconic technology company was becoming a dinosaur: clinging to the mainframe computing business model it had long controlled, no longer capable of innovation, excessively bureaucratic at a time when other technology companies were demonstrating the benefits of a more nimble approach.
It took more than a decade to restore IBM’s reputation, but for the past decade the firm has been restored to its rightful place among the world’s most respected corporations. This year, it ranks number 15 on Fortune’s list of the World’s Most Admired Companies, and number one in the information technology category; is number two on BusinessWeek’s list of the Best Global brands; and saw its stock price increase by 60 percent in 2009.
The bulk of the credit for that turnaround belongs to the company’s two visionary CEOs, Lou Gerstner and Sam Palmisano, who took the reins in 2002. But the company has also benefited from impressive internal and external communications, led for most of the past decade by Jon Iwata, who took over as head of IBM’s corporate communications department in 2002 and has emerged as a prototype for the public relations professional of the future: a strategic thinker with a thorough understanding of how brands are built in the social media age and a trusted advisor to management.
Iwata is responsible for worldwide communications for IBM. His organization includes media relations, industry analyst relations, executive and internal communications, shareholder communications and IBM's global intranet, which serves the company's 320,000 employees. In addition—and critically—his team is responsible for instilling IBM values into the company's practices and operations, a role that appears to recognize the important truth that reputation is built on behavior and that behavior is guided by organizational values.
Last year, Iwata was featured in Advertising Age as one of a handful of senior public relations professionals who have taken on added responsibility for marketing functions within their organizations, combining the skills needed to be a trusted advisor to senior management with an understanding of the importance of new media channels in building brand relationships.
Iwata is recognized as a pioneer in the use of new communications technologies, and IBM was an early adopter of social media to reach external audiences but more importantly internally to bring together people from around the organization and given them more input into the decision-making process.
Over the past 12 months, Iwata has been spearheading the company’s Smarter Planet marketing and thought leadership initiative, a massive campaign than focuses on the ways in which IBM technology can help to solve a wide array of problems—for business and society. The campaign integrates public relations, advertising and social media elements in a way that is designed to fuse and infuse IBM’s brand and its culture.
In addition to his work at IBM, Iwata is a trustee of the Arthur W. Page Society and co-chaired the taskforce that led to the 2007 publication of The Authentic Enterprise, a white paper that examined the drivers and implications of a rapidly changing context for 21st century business drawing on a survey of chief executive officers on the evolving role of corporations. He received the Society’s 2009 Hall of Fame Award.