The culture at Nortel

During its supposed heyday in 2000, Nortel usually would not talk to the trade press.

Althoughthe Brampton, Ont.-based telecom equipment manufacturer actuallyemployed media relations people, their job description at the time didnot seem to include relating to the trade media. During his keynoteaddress at Com-Net Expo in Washington, D.C. in January, 2000, then-CEOJohn Roth differentiated himself by not taking questions from the media.

Initially,your editor (who at the time was with the now-defunct Communications& Networking magazine) thought Nortel’s media folks just hatedhim. But after asking his then-competitor, Network World Canada, itturned out they were having the same experience.

It’s not clearwhy they were reluctant to talk to the trade press, but it’s reasonableto speculate that senior executives felt they didn’t have to. In 1999,the lion’s share of the Toronto Stock Exchange 300 index was actuallycomprised of one company – Nortel. It had made a grand entrance intoenterprise networking with the US$9.1 billion acquisition of BayNetworks. Investors were loading up on its stock. Why waste timetalking to reporters who cover the products you make when you don’treally need the coverage?

Fast forward to 2003, a couple ofyears after Nortel’s stock plunged and the company wrote off billionsin goodwill. At the time, Nortel’s media relations people were startingto act like media relations folks from Cisco, 3Com, Enterasys, Avayaand other major vendors. In other words, Nortel was willing to actuallytalk to reporters specializing in telecom and IT networking.

Fiveyears after Nortel decided to start talking to the trade press, thecompany is still having difficulties not experienced by Cisco and othercompetitors. Today Nortelannounced revenue decreased 14 per cent year over year and will cut1,300 positions. Cisco, by contrast, reported revenues wereup eight per cent from a year ago.

What’s the difference? In thecase of Nortel, it’s not a lack of experience. Whereas Cisco wasfounded in 1984, Nortel can trace its roots back to 1895 as NorthernElectric. From a reporter’s perspective, there are major differences.When your editor first started covering networking in 1999, Cisco wasconstantly hounding him for coverage. If he had a question for Cisco,the company could be relied upon to get back to him.

Nortel isalmost as eager to talk to the trade press now, but that’s only beenthe case for five years. Five years in the tech industry seems like along time, but is not such a long-time when you’re trying to change aculture.

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