Paul Cohen is the Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer of Visa. Having come from a similar role at PayPal where he spent two years setting up the company’s first corporate communications function and overseeing communications about its separation from eBay. Before that, he’d been with Visa for more than a decade, serving in his last position as Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications and Marketing for North America.

His time at Visa has been marked by, among other notable accomplishments, overseeing the company’s record-setting initial public offering. Before Visa, he was in-house at AT&T and also spent time with Fleishman-Hillard and The PBN Company agencies. Paul has been named in PRovoke Media’s Influence 100, as one of the 100 most influential in-house communicators multiple times, most recently in 2020.

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.

When communicating with employees around major shifts like the overnight switch to working from home, transparency is the key.
Over-communicate and make sure employees feel cared for and safe. And come at it from a variety of angles. Visa not only connected employees virtually with doctors who could explain health issues but also with psychologists who could provide expert insight into coping with the changes. The company also connected employees with each other through an intranet that facilitated activities from swapping recipes to exchanging homeschooling tips. 

Traditional advertising that disrupts consumer experiences is being replaced by experiential communications. We all know consumers won’t tolerate long commercial breaks in the middle of a television program. So what marketers do instead is embed messages in ways that feel more natural. Communications can help here, with more engagement on social media and though events. Visa, for instance, is a sponsor of the Olympics, FIFA and the NFL. The expanded importance of experiential communications is here to stay while traditional advertising’s days are very much numbered. 

Measurement is critical when interacting with business leaders, but so far AI isn’t making much impact. At Visa, a longstanding challenge has been to transition the brand's image from that of a credit company to that of a payment technology company. Reputation is also a focus. In both areas, measurement of communications impact is vital. Visa is increasingly investing in more reputation measurement type tools, including pulse polling done periodically as well as spot polls on current issues to guide decisions about whether to engage or not. AI and predictive tools, however, haven’t proven themselves at this brand. 

Paul Dyer: Paul, thank you for joining us.

Paul Cohen: Thank you for having me.

PD:  Paul, you've said that for those in the communications industry who do not have “a seat at the table” this really was the year where you should have gotten your seat at the table. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

PC:  Absolutely. If calendar year 2020 didn't change the role of comms or enhance the role of comms within your organization, you may be in the wrong organization or the wrong job. I mean, the whole world obviously turned upside down for every industry. But when you think about the role of communications and the need for stakeholder engagement, every relationship was reset this year.

The way you engage with employees and what they need to hear from you, the way you engage with clients and what they need to be successful on how to navigate COVID or post-COVID, issues of race and inclusion, the election in the US – there are so many issues. And all of them required either a reset or a re-look at how a company engages with the stakeholders and communicates with the stakeholders. So communications was an obvious fit to take a bigger role in helping to shape a company's activities during the year.

PD: One of the things you've mentioned was your role in helping with the transition to working remotely for the employees of Visa. Can you talk a bit about what was that like--any of the unforeseen challenges or unforeseen wins?

PC: Absolutely. Visa has historically been a company where people work from home, but it wasn't the norm. And all of a sudden, we had to transition 20,000+ people out of the office and do so quickly.

The key was transparency, over-communicating and making sure employees felt safe and cared for. We did a number of things. First, we worked with the HR team, to make sure that we had actual doctors and psychologists available, and we set up virtual sessions where employees could ask questions. Early on with COVID there was just a lot of uncertainty about what it meant, and how long we would be out of the office, how infectious it was, etc.  Bringing in doctors who could provide that insight and having people ask questions, either in a public forum, or, if they preferred, behind the scenes one-on-one, was something that communications and the HR team worked on together to make happen. We did the same with psychologists to provide expert mental health resources. 

We also set up a virtual life at Visa, which was kind of a subset of the internet, which allowed employees to collaborate and engage in things that are tangential to work. Maybe somebody has a recipe they want to share, or they're homeschooling their kids and getting good results, and they want to talk about that, or there's a team meeting and everybody wants to get together for some kind of a virtual coffee or virtual happy hour. All of that was done on this platform, and it created really, really strong engagement.

In fact, productivity either stayed the same or went up in the first few months of the work from home environment. And based on what we've seen, it's still staying very, very high. And the feedback on communications from the executives was extraordinarily high. I think 97 percent of employees felt that the management team was communicating well, they were listening and that it wasn't just pushing communications, but that there were tools and processes so that employees could then engage in a dialogue with management. And so, they felt like they were being heard. They felt like they were being understood and that we could address issues that arose fairly quickly. And overall, it was extraordinarily positive and it continues to be that way.

PD: That really is remarkable when you consider 20,000 employees, and all of them wanting to feel heard, for that to be true. You've also mentioned the importance of face-to-face interactions and engagement for some stakeholder groups, some more sensitive conversations. Obviously, we're constrained in that regard right now but, as we return to normal, what are your thoughts on the role of face-to-face engagement coming out of this?

PC: You’ve asked the question many times about whether I think digital marketing is a redundant phrase, and whether everything is digital today, and I think largely that is the case. But there are still examples of where you need that face-to-face interaction. You need the personal connections in order to make any real progress. 

In our case, Visa is a payment service that is accepted virtually everywhere. And in some cases, it's accepted on sites that people might find offensive or hateful, some sites that are considered hate group sites. And sometimes you get letters from groups that say, "Hey, you should cut these organizations off. Why do you allow acceptance?"

What we try to do, normally, is be a neutral arbiter. We say that if a service is legal in the location where it is based, and where the buyer is based, we don't want to get involved because we don't want to start picking winners and losers. We believe it's up to the governments and law enforcement to decide what's legal and what's not. But it's not always clear cut.

In the case, for example, of hate sites, what we'll say to some of these groups who have issues and concerns is, "Hey, here's our point of view, come meet with us. Let's talk about it and tell us what sites bother you and why.” And if they make the case, we will actually go investigate and determine if there's any activity that either is inciting violence or is illegal, etc., and work with our financial institutions to get them off the Visa network. Because we don't want any of that obviously illegal activity on our network. We don't want anything that's inciting violence.

That's a case where we’re sitting down and having a conversation face to face versus doing it over email or, worst case, social media. And in many cases, we've created partnerships where these groups will come to us now proactively and talk about things that are on their minds or ask to work with us on other projects that they have in the works. So, it's been very, very productive from a business standpoint, from a reputation building standpoint.

PD: That's a great example, also, of your purpose aligning with your business. You also are one of the few companies that has this global ability to be a powerful promoter of social equity worldwide. How you think about crafting the messaging around that and about your partnership with the Economic Empowerment Institute?

PC: We were founded by a gentleman named Dee Hock, a brilliant man who saw the value or the potential of digital currency before the personal computer was created, or before the internet was widely adopted. And he saw it as a means of not only increasing commerce, but also creating greater connectivity across the world, greater inclusion. So inclusion is in our DNA. It's not just something Visa has talked a lot about. 

As a network that connects the world, we really have power and the tools to help small businesses grow, to help government be more efficient. Now what we're doing is, we're working with our colleagues in government relations, our social impact team, the marketing team, and many others to help better define what Visa is, our role in society and why anyone should care about us. 

The Visa Economic Empowerment Institute is really kind of an internal think tank to help promote things like digital trade and make sure people understand the value of breaking down barriers globally, allowing for free trade, the free flow of ideas. What we hope is that governments see the value in connecting to a global payments network versus creating their own network. 

PD: One of the big trends that we like to track and opine on is the changing role of advertising versus communications in our industry. This year, you saw the largest single decrease in media spend probably ever. Within Visa, is the role of advertising changing? 

PC: It's absolutely changing. You think about the old forms of advertising where you watch a television show and there's a break, and a number of commercials come on. It's disruptive, right? Consumers aren't going to put up with it. You have to figure out ways to get your message out that are embedded in programs, that are more natural, that are where consumers are more willing to accept that message.

You see that change in advertising, and it has also put a greater emphasis on communications to help shape behavior by driving perceptions and communicating and reaching audiences where they are not the traditional press release, etc., but more engagement on social and more events. We're fortunate to be a sponsor of the Olympics, FIFA and the NFL. So, we have the opportunity to use those platforms to engage our audiences in more experiential ways versus a traditional advertising. 

Absolutely, that trend is not going to reverse any time in our lifetime. That experiential move is here to stay and is something that we're investing more heavily in.

PD: One of the things that helped drive the advertising industry to the prominence that it attained was measurement. It's also, of course, one of the things that has been a bugaboo for the communications industry. Where do you stand on this discussion of how we measure the value of communications and doing what you just described, which is driving perceptions?

PC: It's a great question. We all still measure the traditional way, which is share of voice and message pull through, and I guess to some extent, we're stuck with that for now. We increasingly try to measure reputation and get an understanding of does the work that we undertake as a company shift perceptions, and with it, drive behaviors?

We know, as a company, that one of the biggest challenges we face is we are looked at as a credit card company. We spent decades telling people we're a credit card company, but we really are a payment technology company. We're a network that allows the free flow of money. And so, we've seen through our research that if we can help better define what Visa is as a payment technology company, then we reduce the desire to regulate among policymakers, and we increase preference for our products.

That type of measurement, being able to quantify that by shifting a perception so you can drive a behavior, is extremely powerful in making your case to management about why you need to undertake a certain program, and why you should be investing in one area of communications or marketing or government engagement versus another. We're increasingly investing in more reputation measurement type tools, whether it's the pulse polling that you would do every six to eight months or more spot polls on certain issues just to determine whether you should engage or not.

Measurement is absolutely critical. And as I said, reputation is where we're trying to focus the most. I keep hearing about new tools and AI and more predictive type tools. I haven't seen one yet that I think would be applicable to us. If you know of any, I'd love to hear about them, but today it seems something that people talk about more than actually implement or use.

PD: When you think about the partners you work with, what are the things that are most valuable to you that they bring, and what are some of those things that they think are valuable, but you wish they would just stop doing?

PC: That's a great question. The most valuable thing a vendor or an agency can bring is that outside-in perspective. Get us out of our own heads. A good agency partner can bring that outside perspective. What's worked for other clients, what's the best practice, and call you, frankly, on your B.S. when you're too inside your head. That's what I value most of all. Somebody who is invested in your business, someone who understands the company's vision, mission and values, but someone who's also going to push you within those confines.

In some cases, it's training and development. We've moved to this environment where roles are not as black and white as they used to be anymore. We need help making sure that our teams have the skillset to flex and be agile. And that's where partners can help us with that kind of training.

PD: So, those are the good things. Now what's the thing that you wish that agencies would stop doing?

PC: I was hoping you were going to forget that part of the question. What do I wish they would stop doing? Well, part of it, I guess is the continued selling. My view is: Do great work and more business will follow. 

PD: Paul, this has been extraordinary. Is there anything else that you think would be important to share with our listeners?

PC: I just think the most important thing now is just realizing that we're not going back to the way things used to be, whether it's in our lives or in communications. It's incumbent on all of us to start to rethink how we do communications. For example, employee communications. We used to have a workforce that was almost exclusively on-site in one of our offices. We are likely to move to an environment where most people never come back to the office full-time. So how do you engage them? How do you build that community for the long term?

I talked about what we did in the first six months or so of the pandemic, but you have to sustain that. I would say the key is maintaining curiosity, continuing to push yourself in your organizations to look at new ways of doing things, and recognizing that the old way of doing things is probably not going to be the best way of doing things in 2021.

PD: It's a lot to look forward to. Thank you again, Paul, we appreciate your time and your insights here, and I'm sure our readers and listeners will as well.

PC: I appreciate it. Thanks for the time.