Lippe Taylor 16 Feb 2021 // 6:55PM GMT
Matt Furman serves as the chief communications and public affairs officer at Best Buy, where he’s been since 2012. He’s responsible for communications — internal and external — as well as government affairs, CSR and community relations. In addition, Matt manages event planning and Best Buy’s in-house production studio.
Before joining the Minneapolis retailer, Matt held the vice president of corporate affairs job at Mars Chocolate. Earlier gigs included communications leadership positions at Google and CNN. He worked in the administrations of former president Bill Clinton and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani as well. A graduate of the American University School of Law, Matt is a licensed attorney and has been a member of the journalism and mass communication adjunct faculty at the University of Minnesota.
Here are some key takeaways from this interview. Feel free to listen to the entire conversation on Lippe Taylor’s DAMN GOOD BRANDS Podcast. Available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and everywhere you listen. Link below.
Consistency is the key to communications. Matt very elegantly stated; "if you speak to 100 people, a third of them didn't listen, a third of them forgot what you said, and the other third didn't believe you. And so you’ve got to speak, and you’ve got to speak again, and you’ve got to speak again." The statement speaks for itself, and is a true testament to how the job of a communicator is never truly done and comms workers must take note of that. Repetition is the key to scaling the efficacy of any communications campaign.
Not everybody is convinced data and analytics have a central role to play. Matt has resisted the prevailing industry view that communications can be understood scientifically, the way marketing can, which is why he employs data in a limited fashion at Best Buy. The main reason, he says, is the difficulty of measuring sentiment in a communications context. For him, when a good story is told well it will be recognized. Similarly, when a crisis is handled well–or poorly—people will know it, and they don’t need data to convince them.
With matters of DEI, put everything on the table. The road to better DEI standards and practices can be daunting, but the best, and arguably, only place to start is with your own company’s truth. Stating up front where you know you need to do better, not only inspires trust and faith in your employees & customers, but allows you to not be paralyzed by the fear of your own company’s shortcomings since you owned up to them up front. It may be uncomfortable, but any discussions that lead to lasting change have to start with the truth, regardless of how hard it may be.
Paul Dyer: You're someone who has worked in a wide range of industries. You've held leadership roles at CNN, Google, Mars Chocolate, now Best Buy -- very different industries. So I'm curious for your thoughts on the importance of pan-communications industry learnings versus really focusing on the industry you're a part of.
Matt Furman: I think you have to be knowledgeable in the industry you're part of. I don't think you have to be that way on day one, though. So if I were encouraging people on what kind of communications experts to hire, I would take people who show the ability to adapt to multiple surroundings, multiple cultures, and perhaps even multiple industries. I would do that on two bases. One, it showed that they had the capacity to learn. And the second is that they could adapt to cultures. The reason that's important is, in my experience, the person you come to work for is not always the person you wind up working for. That means you have to be able to adapt to a different culture or a different leader and working in multiple industries, the ability to move from one to another, demonstrates that.
PD: Culture is something that's been brought up a lot this year, as companies have been tested in terms of how they communicate with employees and manage their culture through all of this change and difficulty. One of the common themes we've heard a lot on this podcast has been communications leaders emphasizing the importance of internal communications. Has that changed in terms of your overall prioritization as well this year, or is it something that's always been top of the pyramid? And what are your thoughts on that?
MF: Best Buy is a company that's always endeavored to be a good place to work. In fact, at an Investor Day late last year, we laid out three goals for 2025 to Wall Street. One of them was to be named one of the best companies to work for, which demonstrates more clearly than anything that we've cared about our employees and therefore internal communications. That has not changed through Covid. It's just become more complicated.
PD: What about the relationship with marketing? On the agency side, everything is getting blown up right now. The PR and communications firms, in many ways, are doing better than they ever have, while the advertising side of the business is forecast to lose over 60,000 jobs in the next three years. What is it like at Best Buy?
MF: The CEO has several direct reports. I'm one of them. The head of marketing at Best Buy reports up to the chief administrative officer. And so we are separate, in that regard, and have been for my entire tenure. With that said, I've never seen a company or worked in a company where communications and marketing are more seamlessly integrated. We're not integrated by hierarchy or organizational chart, but by common purpose, and really, by friendship. We all like each other a lot, respect each other a lot, understand each other's jobs, and are able to support each other in ways that I just have not seen any place else.
PD: That's great to hear. A lot of CCOs speak about our larger responsibility for communications as a catalyst for action within organizations. And that's really been brought to the forefront during this time period. So I’m curious about your perspective on how the role of communications has changed, and how you've been able to act as a catalyst for the broader organization.
MF: We've taken, as one of our primary goals, a function to protect and enhance the reputation of Best Buy. And at the essence of that, you're talking about issues management, the ability to address known issues in ways that mitigate the risks of the company, or better yet, enhance the stature of the company. And then, just as importantly, anticipate reputation issues that may be coming. I have a small team devoted to doing just that. Helping guide us through current issues and see the issues around the corner. Once you do that, the communications follows pretty naturally. The hard part is understanding what kind of mess you're in or could be in or, better yet, understanding how you can come out of it with a greater sense of respect from your customers and your employees.
PD: That's great. It sounds very clear and simple when you say it. It probably doesn't feel necessarily so simple sometimes when you're in the midst of it. You, yourself, have worked in the belly of the beast when it comes to crisis. Not just at Best Buy, but in particular working as an advisor to the governor of Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina. So, first of all, can you just tell us what that experience was like? And then I'd love to talk more about if there's any universal frameworks or principles you like to apply to crisis.
MF: Early in my career, I worked in the government, both for the administrations of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former President Clinton. I've been to many, many different kinds of disasters. Many of them complex and large and awful. Nothing compared to Katrina. Katrina was devastation on a scale we had not ever seen. And thankfully, have not since. The thing that I learned there was that the ability to communicate was as important as the ability to make the right decision. The governor, in that case, a woman by the name of Kathleen Blanco, made the right decisions, time and time again, but sadly, her ability to communicate those decisions was very limited. And as a result, she was not perceived to be a strong leader in the wake of Katrina, even though her decisions were truly remarkable and almost always right.
PD: So the ability to make the right decisions isn't always enough. There's also something really interesting in the coming down of the traditional walls that separated the audiences we would communicate to, say, back when Katrina happened. There were certainly stronger walls between your investor audiences, your employees, your customers, etc., versus today, when everybody can kind of hear the same thing and you have to pretty much plan that anything you say is going to be repeated to all of your audiences. How has that changed, in your experience and through your career, the way that you think about communications planning?
MF: The thing that's changed the most, in my view, is that there was a day when you could convene, practically speaking, all the people that mattered and tell them your story and whether they believed it or not, they would transmit it in some form. You could reach scale. Now, because the universe is so scattered and so balkanized, scale is very, very hard to achieve. If you think about trying to put out a fire, a viral storm, it is whack-a-mole times 10 in a way that it didn't used to be. And so what you hear from people like myself, when I ask colleagues around the country “How do you deal with a viral storm?” often the answer is, "You don't. You simply dock and wait for it to go away." That would have been unthinkable at the time of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but now is a very viable strategy.
PD: So let's talk about that a little bit more: crisis in the corporate setting and issues management with the corporate setting. Are there any frameworks or principles you like to apply broadly, or do you have to just take each one as it comes?
MF: The first is, understand the facts and the source of facts. What I've come to learn is that the people who tell you what the truth is sometimes are really telling you their truth. You have to understand that. I've watched companies and I've watched myself get the short end of the stick because I relied on something that I believed to be factual, when really, it was more hope than it was fact. That's the first thing.
The second thing is, if you speak to 100 people, a third of them didn't listen, a third of them forgot what you said, and the other third didn't believe you. And so you’ve got to speak, and you’ve got to speak again, and you’ve got to speak again. In the effort to reach scale, what you really have to rely on is repetition, more than anything else.
And then, finally, understanding that, unlike it was in my early career where you really focused almost entirely on the media, now, first and foremost, we think about employees. If they're not with you, if they don't believe you, it doesn't matter whether you win the battle externally, you've lost internally. And so you really need to make sure you understand what their concerns are, you need to address them, and you need to be truthful.
PD: So let's talk about a way in which we are, in many ways, being asked to change the script. That is the communications functions role when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion for the broader organization. Can you talk a little bit about what your strategy has been in this area, and are there any more broadly applicable learnings from that?
MF: In keeping with the admonition that, most of all, you need to be truthful, we've found that any discussion about race needs to start there. And, of course, given the fact that the leadership of most organizations--not just companies, but organizations--around America is largely white, being truthful starts with understanding that you have, by definition, almost certainly, not in every case, but almost certainly, fallen short. And so at Best Buy, we took a very truthful, very straightforward approach, which is, "We care about this topic, but we acknowledge we need to do better."
And what that does, is it gives you two kinds of freedom. First, it puts everything on the table. And in fact, we said that in the letter to customers from our CEO, "Everything is on the table." And it also gives you permission to answer the question when confronted with some failure or shortcoming, which all too often occurs, and to acknowledge, "We said, 'We need to do better.'" It allows you to stop being afraid of your shortcomings and your failures and begin to embrace the possibilities.
PD: That's really well said. So shifting gears a little bit, retail has historically been seen as a leader in the field of data and analytics. Do you feel like that extends to the communications function as well as sort of a first part of a two-parter here?
MF: I, personally, have taken a very different approach than the vast majority of my peers, I think. I've resisted data and analytics. I don't have any illusions that we are a science like marketing. I think the sentiment analysis is much harder to achieve in our sphere. And I've taken the view that a good story is well-known, well-understood, and a bad story is too. That, generally speaking, people know when a crisis has been well handled and they generally understand when it hasn't, and no data is going to support or refute that view. And so I have not tried to engage very deeply in data. I mean, we do at the level that it matters, but it is not the bread and butter on which we rely.
PD: To your point about starting with honesty, I think that that's probably the honest truth for a lot of your peers, no matter how they would have actually answered the question.
MF: Maybe they're being more truthful with you than with me.
PD: So, how would you describe the way in which the function is measured in the eyes of the CEO?
MF: First and foremost, our CEO cares that our employees are well cared for. That is, they know what's going on and we know what they're thinking. We can serve, appropriately, as a canary in a coal mine, so we're giving advice, we're giving warnings when we think things might be going awry, or we're celebrating early successes when they might not be well seen.
Secondly, externally, they want to understand that our message is being told well and consistently and with effect. We try to actually move the needle. We have a view that we can actually help the business. The business thinks of us that way. When there is something to be said that can actually grow revenue, we're looked upon as a resource, which I think is a great place for communications to be. It's something that's earned, not given.
And then, finally, on this reputation management perspective, what the CEO and the senior leadership expect is that my department serves as the early warning of things to come so that we can brace for it, adapt, or we can actually take advantage of a circumstance that's coming our direction.
PD: I'm glad you opened that door as well, because a lot of the conversation so far has centered around the communication function’s job in protecting the brand versus promotion and publicity. So is that by design? Is brand protection first and foremost what you wake up in the morning thinking about and promotion comes second? How do you think about those two things?
MF: We've demonstrated the capacity at Best Buy to actually, as I say, move the revenue needle on a very consistent basis. When we earn media, we know it works. That's why it was invented, and that's why it's stayed around as long as it has. It works. The vast majority of the resources are devoted there. The vast majority of my time is spent there. And the vast majority of the benefit to the company is there.
However, you always need to have a fire department, because sometimes, things catch fire. And so we have a very good fire department, it's cross-trained. So the very people pitching are also the people putting out fires, but that's a secondary job most of the time. A much, much smaller group of people is dedicated to seeing the horizon and in dealing with things as they're developing, as they're bubbling. When they pop, everyone rushes to the fire, puts it out, and then goes back to try in driving revenue.
PD: There's a big theme in the communications industry right now around earned creative, which is the idea that you can come up with ideas and activations and campaigns that are themselves just so witty or so clever that they spawn their own news coverage. Is that a fad? Is it something you're focused on versus the more tried and true relationship building?
MF: Earned creative is not a phrase that I'd heard before, but that's a perfect descriptor of what we endeavor to do. We have lots and lots of stories to tell. We sell products that people love, that give them real joy, real entertainment, real connection, real productivity. Our mission as a company is to enrich people's lives through technology, and we have the ability to tell that story. And we do it by actually telling stories. A measure of success for us is, one, can those stories pop externally? Very often, a couple of times a quarter, the stories that we find and tell are actually used by our marketing colleagues in paid marketing.
PD: So this has been a tough year for a lot of people in America. A lot of people, even in our industry, have ended up out of work. What advice would you give to people who are trying to make themselves more marketable as a candidate, more hire-able in communications?
MF: What I've seen is that there are divisions among communicators between those who consider themselves communicators in the social sphere and those who consider themselves communicators in a more, we'll call, traditional sphere.
First and foremost, if you choose one, you should probably cross train in the other sphere. Offering diversity, being able to do both, simply makes more sense in the time of limited resource. I can hire one person to do two jobs versus one to do individually. That's the first thing.
I think the second thing is, as always, the ability to write. If you're not a good writer, now is the time to become one. And, like any skill, you can learn how to write.
And then finally, I think the thing that is always in short supply, at least in companies like ours, is the ability to actually manage media, to have media skills. I should've said at the very beginning, I don't outsource any of my work. I don't have any agencies working, we insource it all. So if you've done that at any point in your career, emphasizing that in your resume or in your conversations, I think, is particularly useful. Given resources are limited, it would be nice to be able to hire someone who can write and actually also manage media.
PD: That's great. And you're right. The insourcing trend has certainly been more prevalent in the last handful of years than it was before. There are a lot of brands out there that are trying to wrap their head around, "How far should I go? Should I insource everything? Are there only certain pieces of it I should insource?" What advice would you give? What are your thoughts on some of, maybe, the pitfalls or the opportunities from insourcing the whole function?
MF: When I joined in Best Buy eight years ago, the company was on a downward slope and might have died. And so our decision to insource was instigated out of necessity. I simply had to cut money. Now, it was consistent with my view that if I was ever given a chance, I would try and build a team that could do what agencies could do, look better, and cheaper. And it turns out that's exactly what we did, but it began out of necessity.
The advice I would give you is whatever money you're giving back, make sure you get some money to hire. You can't do it without more or better head count, or both. You need the right people.
The second thing is you have to invest a lot of time in their training. This is not something that comes quick. You're not going to be able to hire an A team off the bench right away. You're going to hire C or B players and then develop them.
And then, finally, you want to begin to value speed more than you do now. Companies that are relying on agencies have gotten used to a slower speed than you will have, if you have it in-house. If you have it in-house, you say it and it happens.
You also lose things. You lose some experience, you lose some feet on the ground, you lose some muscle; but you gain experience, you gain speed. And so it just becomes a matter of what you value more. My advice is begin to value speed a little bit more than you did, because it'll diminish the disappointment you might feel elsewhere. And eight years later, we have an in-house agency that can do anything and they're as good as anyone. So I've not given up anything.
PD: That's really, really insightful. So one final question here is, and it's sort of broad, but what's the mindset that you think is most important for success right now?
MF: I think there's two. I don't know about how it works for other people. I'll tell you within my team. The first is resourcefulness. We are Fortune 100, but we're not a massive team compared to many of our peers. You need to be resourceful. You need to be willing to take on jobs that you haven't done before, model your behavior on what you've seen, and then learn how to do it yourself. So for instance, all of our spokespeople are my team. When we do TV interviews, it's my team. And so I'll have 23-year-olds doing broadcast television. The first five times, they're not great at it. So we start them out in small markets. By the tenth time, they're pretty good. And they're doing the Today show. So, that's the first thing. You’ve got to be resourceful. You’ve got to be willing to try.
And then secondly, and this one is much more theoretical, but I think it's important. I have a strong view that a job is more than a paycheck, which means we come to work for things more than just the money we make. We come to work for experiences and opportunities and relationships. And so I think you need to have a mindset that tells you that I'm here at Best Buy—or fill in the blank, at any other company--to get something more than just the money. I want to be enriched by it. It sets the right tone, it puts you in the right position, and it makes you open to possibilities you might not have otherwise been open to.
PD: Well, Matt, I can't imagine a better place to end the conversation than that. So thank you very much.
MF: It was very nice meeting you.