Thornton helps Unify to weather the storm

Unify Corporation in 2000 became one of the earliest companies to be entangled in this decade's spate of accounting scandals. But the enterprise software firm stabilized by 2003 and last year posted its highest financials since the crisis.

Unify Corporation in 2000 became one of the earliest companies to be entangled in this decade's spate of accounting scandals. But the enterprise software firm stabilized by 2003 and last year posted its highest financials since the crisis.

"We had a 300% increase in our stock price during 2007," says Deborah Thornton, senior marketing director at Unify. The financials show the company is thriving and no longer tainted by scandal.

However, Thornton knows that the crisis helped her career.

She remembers the day - July 30, 2000 - that her boss called her into the office at 5am to put a release on the wires. Then PR manager at Unify, Thornton suspected turmoil at the company, but was taken aback to learn she would be announcing that Unify faced a criminal investigation and a potential restatement of its financials.

This scandal at Unify happened before Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom turned "cooking the books" into a household term.

Thornton had to explain to investors, Wall Street, and customers the nature of the fraud - without the guidance of legislation like Sarbanes-Oxley, which was created in 2002.
"People hadn't heard of this type of thing happening," recalls Thornton. "From stockholders to media - people wanted to know the story."

At the time, Unify had no solid crisis communications plan and its PR agency mostly handled product launches. "It fell on my shoulders," she says.

Although many companies disappear behind "no comment" during a crisis, Thornton decided this was a chance to be authentic and forthcoming with stakeholders. To do that, she asked for direct access to the acting CEO to develop key messages that she could bring to the public.

Drafting talking points isn't easy as your firm undergoes a major investigation. Thornton assisted the acting - and now current - CEO Todd Wille by raising questions: Have customers cancelled orders? Are employees leaving?

"[Wille] said no," she adds. "So I said, 'There's a message.'"

"I'd say, 'Here's what I want to say' and she'd turn it into words that were amazing," Wille notes.

Mindful of disclosure, Thornton offered reporters other sources when the company couldn't talk.

"I took the calls," she says, "and often I'd say, 'I can't talk about that, but would you like to talk to a customer?'" Unfortunately, her efforts didn't translate into success.

Most of the reports of the scandal covered the investigation and it was rare to find an article that mentioned the company was staying afloat despite the investigation.

As Unify came out of the tunnel, its first product launch of eWave following the crisis flopped, putting Thornton again in the position of asking stakeholders and the media to trust and be patient.

After Enron imploded, press attention shifted from Unify and toward the bigger - and more devastating - destruction of the Houston-based company.

Things improved and Unify's second product - visual development tool NXJ Developer - had a successful launch. Thornton says the company is now thriving.

Remarkably, in this era of job-hopping, Thornton stayed with the company, despite the hefty challenges she faced. But it has paid off; eight years later, she has been promoted several times within the company.

"Having gone through that crisis was a powerful experience [for her]," Wille recalls.
Thornton encourages other PR pros to pay attention to what can be learned from sticking with a company through its darkest hour.

"Be open to the opportunity a crisis can [offer] you career-wise," she advises, "either in the current company or a future company because it certainly has for me."


Deborah Thornton

2007-present
Unify, senior director of marketing

1999-2007
Unify, various posts from PR manager (1999-2001)
to mktg. manager (2001-03)
to mktg. director (2003-07)

1998-1999
Fleishman-Hillard, account supervisor

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