They know how to handle the media

Apr 8, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Trading a journalism career for one in public relations isn’t an unusual move, but it’s rarely a switch made by broadcasters at the top of their game.
No one would suggest that former CNN “Talk Back” host Bobbie Battista and CNN co-founder and former VP of News Planning David Bernknopf left the fold because they couldn’t make it in a competitive business. Both were successful in the world of television news , but they left when the job became unfulfilling. At the beginning of this year they established Atamira Communications, a media relations company.
“David and I were both at CNN from the very beginning, and we feel we contributed a lot to building CNN and giving it credibility,” said Ms. Battista. “But since the merger [of Time Warner and AOL], there’s a different set of core values, and David and I decided that it was time to leave, because we’re not going to be happy in that environment. They’re not doing news in the way we want to do news.”
Mr. Bernknopf agreed. “You can call me a journalistic dinosaur-that’s fine,” he said.
The name Atamira comes from a tribal New Zealand word that means “empowered presentation.” Ms. Battista and Mr. Bernknopf hope to teach CEOs how to achieve just that through their Atlanta-based company.
“We think there’s a shifting landscape both on the corporate and the PR levels,” Ms. Battista said. “It’s our feeling that media training, putting the CEO front and center, used to be on the backburner with PR firms, but since Enron and Arthur Andersen and Kmart, we think it’s moved to the front burner. The CEO has to be willing to be held personally responsible.”
True to values
Right now Atamira is working to build a client base. In February the company taught media relations and crisis management strategies to the executives and ground crews of DAL Global Services, a subsidiary of Delta Airlines.
Jim McCarthy, president of DAL Global Services, said, “Atamira’s explanation of how and why the media does what they do was very credible.”
Mr. Bernknopf insists that Atamira’s goals are not to help CEOs come up with ways to spin messages.
“I covered politics, and I hate spin,” he said. “Every one of the people who works with us shares the values of traditional journalism. We want to bring those traditional values of honesty to the PR world. We hope to show and persuade people that by being honest they can be more successful.”
Mr. Bernknopf and Ms. Battista aren’t the first top-level broadcast personalities to create a business in training executives how to deal with the media. Susan Peterson established The Communications Center in 1983 after working for a decade as a network television correspondent for CBS and NBC. Based in London as CBS’s first female foreign correspondent, she covered political and economic events in Europe and the Middle East, interviewing presidents, popes and prime ministers.
“After a decade as a network correspondent, I started asking myself if there wasn’t more to life than sound bites and one-minute stories,” Ms. Peterson said. “I did a little video production, a little public relations and a whole bunch of other things. But after a couple of years, people began to call me requesting media training, and that’s when I realized that I not only love doing this but I’m very good at it.”
Today Ms. Peterson has 10 trainers working for The Communications Center and clients that range from the U.S. Army to IBM and Silicon Graphics.
Ms. Peterson said she is grateful for two big things being a highly visible broadcaster taught her.
“The ability to think fast on my feet has helped me enormously with clients because this business is equivalent to doing satellite feeds every hour,” she said.
“And I learned to fully research the subject. CBS inculcated that in me, and that has served me in good stead. Whether I’m pitching businesses or training them, they respect me because I’ve done my homework.”
If she were to go back into the television business knowing what she knows now, Ms. Peterson would have some advice for media managers: Learn to manage when the tables are turned and reporters are calling you.
She said, “Media people are like so many of the people in other businesses whom we train. They are used to being in charge and in authority. And when they are put in the spotlight, they feel vulnerable.”