By Andrew Grossman
Special to TelevisionWeek
Kathryn Falk couldn’t understand why her boss at Cox Communications had given her, the new head of public and government affairs, the task of handling customer complaints.
What did taking calls about outages and missed service calls have to do with dealing with the media and lobbying local officials in her Northern Virginia region? Gary McCollum, the head of the 260,000-subscriber region, figured the best way to educate the cable novice was from the ground up.
As is her style, Ms. Falk threw all her energy into the job and discovered she had a lot to learn about the business. “I had no idea how hard your job was,” Ms. Falk said she told Mr. McCollum.
Of course, complaints took a nosedive thereafter, from several hundred a month to a trickle, Mr. McCollum said.
“She never has a bad day,” he said, marveling about the energetic Vanguard Award winner for Young Leadership, who likes to keep her hand in almost every part of the operation. “And she probably has no peer in terms of building and establishing relationships within our company and outside the company. She’s one of those people who never walks by a problem.”
Ms. Falk’s abilities and influence resonate far beyond her Fairfax County, Va.-based region. As head of the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association from 1997 to 2002, she helped lay the groundwork for legislation enacted in March 2006 that staved off the telephone companies’ efforts to obtain a statewide cable franchise.
“We were successful in Virginia because of the foundation Kathryn built years ago,” Mr. McCollum said.
Industry consolidation and a desire to cut costs destroyed many statewide cable lobbying groups, but the VCTA remained relevant.
Ms. Falk modestly deflects the credit for her work at the VCTA and Cox, consistently giving staffers most of the credit even as she endures one of the most challenging public affairs jobs in the nation, working for a system whose proximity to Washington makes it highly visible and vulnerable.
“Our customers demand the latest technology and the best customer service,” Ms. Falk said, noting that comes with having The Washington Post as the local newspaper and serving a county that is home to Federal Communications Commission officials and federal lawmakers. “We’re under more scrutiny than anyone from a policymaking perspective.”
Competition is intense as well. Verizon has four video franchises and overbuilders RCN and Starpower have made raids as well.
At Cox Ms. Falk displayed her media and lobbying savvy when she convinced government officials to give the company a break from what it considered an unrealistic franchise agreement inked by previous cable provider Media General.
“We came in with the predicament of having made some commitments, some of them undeliverable,” she said, adding that Cox convinced the county it was in its best interest to negotiate new franchise provisions.
Ms. Falk began her career as a regulator, working for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, where her interest in cable took root when she started seeing a number of women she admired leave state regulatory groups for cable.
“I wondered, ‘What’s going on there?'” she said, adding that her next job with a telephone trade group was not her calling: “It wasn’t creative or entrepreneurial enough.”
At Cox Ms. Falk has played a leadership role as president of the local chapter of Women in Cable & Telecommunications while remaining active in the community.
Under Ms. Falk and Mr. McCollum, Cox has contributed $3 million to anti-gang initiatives, including a $1 million donation to build more Boys & Girls Clubs. A February 2005 “gang summit” media event to introduce the program paid off in more than good public relations.
“That’s where I met my fianc%E9;,” she said noting that he was working for Washington’s WTOP radio.