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Trying to Manage the Message

March 12, 2007 12:00 AM

At large media companies with multiple moving pieces, it's no cakewalk to present a unified corporate message. That's the conclusion I came to at the Women in Cable & Telecommunications conference in New York during cable's so-called "Spring Break" last week.

It was hardly spring, as an arctic blast blew into town, along with several thousand cable executives who were there to attend Cable Positive's annual fundraising dinner, this year honoring Time Warner Cable chieftain Glenn Britt. Also, WICT hosted its first Leadership Conference, which attracted more than 550 attendees. And WICT's New York chapter, along with Multichannel News, held its annual Wonder Women lunch that same week.

At the WICT Leadership Conference, I moderated a panel of public relations executives who discussed how they manage the message, especially during turbulent times. Shirley Powell, senior VP of corporate communications at Turner Broadcasting System, was quite open about Cartoon Network's marketing ploy for Adult Swim that went awry, costing the company $2 million.

Cartoon had hired a third-party vendor, Interference, to launch a viral outdoor marketing campaign in 10 cities; it backfired in Boston when local authorities responded to the campaign as a threat to security, deploying first responders to the scene. There's no crisis-management playbook that prepares public relations executives on how to deal with this kind of outcome, she said: "You just jump in" and put out the fire.

Also on the hot seat was Jeanine Liburd, senior VP of corporate communications at Viacom. Her crisis was both internal and external when the company fired longtime chief Tom

Freston in September. And it didn't stop there, with 250 more heads rolling in a massive company reorganization. Employee morale was in the basement, but it was time to "leave your emotions at home" and realize the business reasons for the decision were clear, she said.

Ellen East, Cox Communications' VP of communications and public affairs, had a different message to impart. Several years ago the publicly held company went private, which created an unanticipated dilemma. While management enjoyed getting out from under Wall Street's microscope, nobody was calling the company at a time when it was aggressively launching its bundle of services: voice, video and high-speed Internet access. Ms. East described how the company had to shift gears and get ink to get the word out to the public so Cox could market the new services and grow the business.

Meanwhile, the fourth panelist, Lifetime Entertainment's Meredith Wagner, executive VP of public affairs and corporate communications, didn't usher in the new year happily when EchoStar Communications' Dish dropped the network in late 2006. The last thing companies want during carriage renewal negotiations is to see their stories splashed all over page one, especially when the short-term news is not a positive story. Eventually the parties came to an agreement and Lifetime was reinstated on Dish, but Ms. Wagner's job was to let the negotiators do their business without stirring up more ink.

All four panelists spoke about the difficulties they sometimes face with their own company managers as to how a message should be presented (or sometimes just muzzled). They all attend meetings of all their companies' various divisions and often encounter resentment about their presence, especially when they offer input. "You just have to push back," said Ms. East, and remind the different divisions why PR is sitting at the table.

Managing leaks was another hot potato. The panelists acknowledged it's nearly impossible, but all four companies have strict policies about employees speaking to the press before letting corporate communications know what's afoot. And their jobs have become even more taxing with the growth and popularity of blogs, they agreed.

Clearly it's not like the old days, when companies sent out news announcements via Federal Express while the PR staffs awaited press reaction. Today the function is a 24/7 commitment, with fires erupting everywhere and anywhere. Welcome to today's reality, they told attendees, who hopefully walked away with a better idea of what their PR people are up against. n