Budding role of IT communications director helps IT deliver its message

Beth Stackpole

Like any marketing/communications professional, Glaston Ford is a master juggler who can keep a lot of balls in the air at once. Editing corporate strategy decks, pulling together email campaigns, coordinating a social presence and posting blogs to the corporate portal -- he might do any of those things and more in a day's work at Applied Materials.

Unlike his marketing peers, however, Ford isn't part of the CMO's staff. Rather, he reports directly to CIO Jay Kerley and is charged with building a brand for the Applied Materials IT organization, which is made up of 340 internal employees and 1,400 contractors. Ford's primary objective is to establish the IT department's credibility among the company's 14,000 global employees, and to raise its profile externally to aid in recruitment efforts.

"I am a champion, a standard bearer and an advocate for IT," says Ford, director of IT marketing at Applied Materials, a provider materials engineering systems for the semiconductor, flat panel display and solar photovoltaic industries. "We wanted to improve the image of the organization and boost the communications presence of the executive team. We had good things happening in IT that people just didn't know about."

Ford is part of an emerging coterie of communications specialists who define and position the IT brand, and craft related messaging. These positions, which usually have titles like director of IT communications, are more common at large organizations with thousands of employees spread across many constituencies. The people who fill them typically hail from the marketing or business ranks.

The role of a dedicated IT communications specialist is taking root for a number of reasons, according to Kristen Lamoreaux, president of Lamoreaux Search LLC, an IT-focused placement firm. The rise of social media has convinced many CIOs that they need digital-savvy experts to effectively leverage that forum for both internal and external communications, she explains. In addition, with the rise of easily deployed cloud-based services, IT is no longer the only outlet for business users to acquire technology, so there's pressure to elevate the department's profile in order to stave off shadow IT schemes.

"IT needs to demonstrate its value and the benefit of working within its parameters," Lamoreaux says. "Therefore, CIOs are recognizing that they need to step up their game in terms of communications."

Bridging business with IT

Applied Materials put the wheels in motion eight years ago when the CIO who preceded Kerley sought an IT program manager with a flair for communications. The search turned up several candidates who had strong program management expertise but lacked communications skills, so the team switched gears and ended up finding Ford, who had a more traditional communications background that included PR and high-tech communications with a little journalism sprinkled in.

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