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IBM Strategist Advocates ‘New Mindset’ for Corporate Communications

Brandon T. Bisceglia

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Corporations are shifting away from talking about themselves toward sharing ideas with people around the world, IBM

IBM Communications Strategist and former business journalist Steve Hamm talks to UNH gathered students in the Vlock Center for Convergent Media Dec. 7 about the new opportunities that global communications are opening for businesses and media.

Communications Strategist Steve Hamm on Dec. 8 told a class of UNH students in the Laurel Vlock Center for Convergent Media in Maxcy Hall.

Hamm spoke to communications majors taking a copy editing course taught by adjunct Professor of Communications Mike Bazinet about his view that both journalism and public relations in the U.S. are broken at a time when a flood of disorderly information has created a great need for writers’ narrative talents. He urged the students not to be pessimistic, saying that there are also more opportunities than ever for positive change in both fields.

“The landscape has been utterly transformed in just a matter of years,” he said. It’s shocking – just shocking. Hamm should know. He worked in journalism for decades before joining IBM two years ago. He wrote for the Bristol Press in Bristol, Conn., the San Jose Mercury News, and Business Week. He has written several books, most recently publishing a book honoring IBM’s centennial anniversary. He also writes for IBM’s “A Smarter Planet Blog.”

Hamm witnessed the decline of Business Week firsthand, from being the top business publication in the world in the late 1990’s to when it “essentially went out of business” in 2009. He said he changed roles because he knew that journalism was struggling and he wanted to work with a large organization where his writing would have more influence.

Hamm said, though, that there are also problems emerging in corporate communications, precisely because of its relationship to journalism. “The old model was: you strategize around finding a journalist interested in telling your story, invest time to develop a relationship with them, understand the market, build stories, pitch them, and then they’d be published,” he said.

Increasingly, Hamm said, journalism has lost its emphasis on explanation and narrative. He said that stories on business news websites like Marketwatch.com are a jumble of sometimes contradictory snippets without any kind of depth. “In a world of tremendous complexity, we’ve got news in tiny bits,” he said.

One of the things that Hamm and his colleagues at IBM have been working on to overcome the collapse of in-depth reporting is to recreate deep conversations about ideas through newer media, such as social networking sites. To do that, corporations are expanding their focus of constituents as shareholders and customers to include governments, universities, other companies – and employees.

That is one of the aims behind “A Smarter Planet Blog” and its related Facebook page, “People for a Smarter Planet.” Both sites include discussion with writers and researchers who work for IBM, but also bring in perspectives from all over the world.

One recent innovation was to have “Smart Fridays,” during which people studying interesting phenomena explain their research through a series of posts on the Facebook page. In one recent series, a researcher showed that the height of high-heeled shoes fluctuates with the economy. In hard times, heels tend to get higher, while in prosperous times, they get lower.

The conversation, while not specific to anything that IBM does, generated about 1.4 million hits in a few hours. Hamm sees these types of crossover conversations as a positive step for corporate communications. “One thing corporations must do is say, ‘here’s our knowledge,’ and become a hub around networks to create a feedback loop of learning and influencing. These are the most valuable things in the world, where value can be created.”

Hamm admitted that no one, including IBM, has quite figured out how to take full advantage of the explosion of information technologies available. That is why it is vital for people from different walks of life to share ideas with one another and try new things.

“Communication is not the frosting on the cake. It is the cake now,” he said. “It is part of the core of what societies need to advance.”

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IBM Strategist Advocates ‘New Mindset’ for Corporate Communications