Collamore shifts strategy at Chamber of Commerce

Although Thomas Collamore (pictured) spent the bulk of his career in politics and corporate affairs, his eye for strategic communications led him to the Chamber of Commerce.

From a more cohesive message to its social media entrée, the US Chamber of Commerce has significantly reshaped how it communicates under his leadership.

Although Thomas Collamore spent the bulk of his career working in politics and corporate public affairs, his eye for strategic communications ultimately led him to the top PR post at the US Chamber of Commerce.
 
He was named SVP of communications and strategy and counselor to the president in 2007, just in time to help create and implement the Chamber's largest communications effort in its nearly 100-year history.
 
The organization, which represents 3 million US businesses, announced plans in June for a multi-year, multimillion dollar campaign, “Campaign for Free Enterprise,” that aims to remind policymakers, thought leaders, and all Americans about the importance and relevance of the US' current economic model. The effort is set to launch within the next few months.
 
“In the context of these extraordinary economic times, we want to make sure that folks understand that there's a line to be drawn,” says Collamore.
 
The extent of the tools the Chamber plans to use – grassroots organization, ads, education, political activities, and social media – combined with “a new, overarching message strategy” will transform its outreach.
 
“You will get a picture of a Chamber that is involved in this broad array of issues that impact the economy,” says Collamore. “Rather than just one sliver at a time, you see the depth and breadth of what the Chamber brings to the advocacy discussion.”
 
Transforming communications
When Collamore came to the Chamber in October 2007, the communications staff had solid experience working on the various issues that affect its membership, though it lacked a singular message for the organization.
 
“We don't have an overall messaging platform about the value of the Chamber and the voice of business in the debate, at least on the level that we thought we should,” he admits.
 
So Collamore worked at shaping and packaging the Chamber's priority issues, called the competitiveness agenda, into media-friendly and nimble message points.
 
“This is a very disparate organization, with folks very focused on their issue,” he notes. “We're trying to find ways to remind people about the Chamber's overall broad agenda.”
 
At the same time, Collamore evaluated the Chamber's communications team and recruited two new staffers – Tita Freeman, a former manager in the communications group for Google, and JP Field, former senior director of strategic communications for the National Association of Manufacturers.
 
“The deciding factor was Tom Collamore,” says Freeman, about her decision to accept the VP of communications position at the Chamber. “Virtually everyone I spoke to in this town said you could never work for a better person than Tom.”
 
Collamore implemented the Chamber's first new media strategy, assigning a few members of his 30-person communications team to work on digital efforts. Under this new plan, the team launched Chamber Post, a blog that averages 130 posts each month and often links to sites like The Huffington Post and Politico. It also created a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
 
Although Collamore admits that he doesn't fully understand social media, he notes that advocacy groups that use it effectively will be more successful in their communications.
 
“The Chamber,” he adds, “is a great platform for rolling out a lot of new concepts in the communications world.”
 
Collamore also looked at how to streamline internal communications with senior managers and within his team. When he joined the Chamber in 2007, daily news clips were still photocopied and passed around.
 
Now an outside entity collects stories that include the Chamber, as well as those touching on the issues in the competitiveness agenda, in a daily briefing to Chamber staff.
 
Supporting free enterprise
The way that Collamore views the “Free Enterprise” campaign is two-fold. First, it will function as a major communications effort that will remind the public and policymakers about the role that free enterprise has played in the US. The initiative will also shape how the Chamber communicates and will be integrated into its day-to-day work.
 
“We're going to take the infrastructure of the Chamber and ensure that all the capabilities and assets that we have spend a portion of their time and energy on this higher-level message about free enterprise,” he says.
 
Part of the focus will be on small businesses, as the Chamber works to position itself away from its reputation of only supporting Big Business, and how to tap into the grassroots network of millions of members.
 
“A critical role he's played is just having a vision for the campaign,” says Freeman. “The political and economic environment is drastically different. This campaign will help align the mission and work the Chamber does behind a very positive, constructive cause.”
 
The campaign will include a speaker's bureau of entrepreneurs and successful business people who will speak out in support of free enterprise, says Collamore. They will be used as ambassadors to give speeches to the public and media interviews nationwide.
 
With the time he spent in the Reagan and H. W. Bush administrations, as well as 15 years of experience at the Altria Group, Collamore is well positioned to be a strategist for the “Free Enterprise” campaign.
 
“Tom has a rare combination of being able to think very strategically when it comes to public policy and communications and develop an effective strategy, as well as being very capable of the execution and implementation of a strategy,” says Craig Fuller, who has known Collamore since 1981.
 
Fuller, now the president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, worked with Collamore in both the Reagan and H. W. Bush administrations, as well as at the Philip Morris Company.
 
“The fact that he has high-level business experience inside a major consumer-products corporation, as well as political experience at the White House, helps him understand how to translate public policy issues so that the business community understands,” says Fuller. “With business issues, he can communicate in ways that policymakers understand.”
 
Collamore didn't plan for a communications career. He graduated from Drew University and planned to attend law school when Malcolm Baldrige, then the Secretary of Commerce, asked Collamore to work with him.
 
He recalls: “Mr. Baldrige said, ‘Neither one of us knows anything about Washington. Why don't we go figure it out together?'”
 
He spent 12 years in DC, eventually serving as the assistant secretary of commerce and chief of staff and gaining exposure to communications issues, before becoming VP of corporate public affairs at Philip Morris Company, which at the time owned Kraft Foods, Philip Morris, and Miller Brewing.
 
Collamore was named the project director of the rebranding to Altria Group. He says that branding process and dealing with public affairs issues at the world's largest tobacco company furthered his understanding of communications and transparency.
 
“My corporate experience gives me some insight into what it takes to get the attention of corporate leaders and business folks, to get them to understand that something important and vital is involved,” he notes. “Every step along the way of coming to the Chamber was a piece of the preparation for taking on leadership of what I think is the best communications shop in Washington.” 
  
October 2007-present
US Chamber of Commerce, SVP of communications and strategy and counselor to the president

June 2007-September 2007
Friends of Fred Thompson, chief operating officer

Sept. 1992-June 2007
Philip Morris Company/Altria Group, VP of corporate public affairs

January 1989-August 1992
US Department of Commerce, various positions

April 1985-January 1989
The White House, assistant to Vice President George H. W. Bush

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