Oral Histories

Bill Margaritis

Interview Segments on Topic: PR and Technology/Change

Bill Margaritis Biography

Bill Margaritis is the executive VP of corporpate affairs at Hilton Worldwide. Previously, he was corporate vice president for global communications and investor relations for FedEx Corporation.


INTERVIEWER: Can you clarify the term kaleidoscope thinking?

MARGARITIS: Kaleidoscope thinking is, from what I understand, an idea that was born through a Harvard professor years ago. The idea is that when you face a problem and you hit a wall on something, most people tend to go back to their repository of knowledge and try to find a way through that wall. It could be a process issue or what have you. And what it means, what it says, is if you change the kaleidoscope, you’ll note the colors in the light will vary depending on how you change the lens. So it’s important to try to draw upon maybe a lesson learned in a whole different industry. In our case it could be maybe something in the biotech world that happened or in the software world that happened that we can apply to a problem or a challenge that we’re facing here.   And it may be kind of related when Steven Colby says his, ‘step back and sharpen the saw’ as well. To take a clean, fresh sheet approach to a problem or an opportunity.

INTERVIEWER: Is that a change? I wanted to ask you to talk about the changes you’ve observed in the public relations practice over the decades, is that one of them?

MARGARITIS: The most profound change I think, in the world of communications is that the old model of command and control has been turned upside down. The pyramid has been inverted. The power curve now is with people, consumers, and your employees. And certainly you factor in the historic levels of distrust that people have now in corporations; which is unfortunate, I think, because it’s only been the bad actions of a few that have kind of colored a lot of really good companies. You have to really change the way you think through your language, your actions; how transparent, candid and authentic you are. And really try to find a way to engender loyalty and pride among your people. Because if the world knows that you’re treating people with respect and you’re treating them fairly and you have a strong culture or ethos, they will give you the benefit of the doubt in a crisis. And every company faces them. They will also be more likely to purchase your product. They will also be more likely to trust you, to invest in you, to want to work there and buy your product or service. So to me, culture has both tangible and intangible benefits. The tangible benefits are that you’re able to incent people to do the absolute best they can do in whatever job they have; whether it’s a customer service agent, a pilot, or a courier in our case. So you’re trying to get optimal performance because they believe in what you’re doing. They are proud and loyal. Then the ultimate payoff really--and this is I think the holy grail with respect to culture--is finding the sweet spot of discretionary effort. That comes from the heart. That can’t be legislated. Finding a way to get to people’s hearts is a very interesting issue. You have things like reputation, the conduct of the executives, how you’re treating people. When we have cases of couriers going into burning homes to rescue babies, all these heroic efforts—that’s not something that’s in their manager guide or their job scope. It’s because they want to live up to that ideal they have of what a FedEx person should do. We have this interesting saying here. It’s actually a rallying cry. It’s called the purple promise and everyone in the company, whether you’re in Hong Kong or Boston, or any operating environment, can recite to you. The purple promise is that ‘I will make every FedEx experience outstanding whether I’m dealing with a peer to peer, or with a customer.’ And that is the rallying cry. It really is celebrated, rewarded, incented. So when you come into this company and you’re a new employee and you hear about these heroic stories; you hear about discretionary effort, you hear about the value system, you hear about the purple promise. You want to emulate that because if you don’t, then you’re likely not to fit in. And humans, really, are motivated by peer pressure and legends. I think story telling also now is really important as it relates to both communications internally and externally. Humans love stories, because you can bring a lot of emotion and meaning to something in stories. We’re now starting this amazing campaign here called ‘I am FedEx.’ It’s real people and real places telling their story about so many different aspects of their job. They’re volunteering time in a community, what they think about the company, some innovation. And it’s authentic, it’s stories, it’s something we can put over the Internet. It’s cool stuff like that; that you can do now, that you couldn’t do before. And by the way, if you think of yourself as a modern media company, rather than just as a PR machine, you start to look at the world completely differently. You start to look at managing and creating content differently, the distribution of content and what that content does. In our case we look for productivity, knowledge workers, collaborative opportunities, putting campaigns over the Internet. So being a modern media company, I think transcends the traditional role of PR in corporate communications into a whole different space.

INTERVIEWER: How have social media and the Internet impacted your work on a pragmatic level?

MARGARITIS: Well social media has had a profound impact on our business and how we communicate. It’s still a work in progress. I think we’re all learning. It’s sort of like the wild, wild west. There are tremendous benefits to it but there are also a lot of vagaries and pit falls. Clearly the most important part of social media is the importance of relationships and understanding and being sympathetic towards what people expect of you as a corporation and for you to know them at a deeper level and communicate and serve them in ways that you wouldn’t know and have done before. That means that you’ve got to change your whole customer service approach, your service levels; the kinds of choices and features that you’re giving them. The more customized you make your value proposition or your product to a consumer, the more likely you are to engender that loyalty and trust, and develop advocacy. So it’s understanding the emotive part or dealing with consumers in social media space, as well as their transactional part. I think before social media, companies tended to put more emphasis on their transactional part—the price, the quality of the product, why my soap is better or different than yours. But now, not only do you have to get your transactional parts right, you also have to have equally compelling—what I would call emotional intelligence capabilities of the corporation; and dealing on a one to one level rather than one to masses.