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Cable Public Affairs: A Whole New Game

Public-affairs professionals gathered in San Antonio for the Cable Television Public Affairs Association's Forum 2000 this week will be contemplating a radically different business from the one most of us knew a few short years ago. The theme, "It's a Whole New Game," couldn't be more timely or appropriate.

This is hardly news. Indeed, it's a safe bet that virtually everyone attending Forum 2000 has been affected in some significant way by the mergers and acquisitions that have redefined the industry over the past three years.

Even the phrase "cable-television industry" is now seen as too limiting, given our industry's enormous investment in (and the huge potential of) broadband-telecommunications platforms and services.

But a quick look back reveals how profoundly the industry has changed over the past three years. Of the 10 largest cable MSOs that existed in the spring of 1997, only four remain. The others have either merged, been acquired, or are operating under new ownership (and new names).

Companies long considered antagonistic to the cable industry's long-term interests have seen the broadband future and bought into it. Adversaries have become allies, and the only prediction one can make with any degree of certainty is that the tectonic plates of industry structure and ownership will continue to shift.

As the structure of the industry has changed, so, too, has the role of its public-affairs professionals. And as our multiple businesses have evolved, so have the ways in which public-affairs professionals operate and how success is judged. The challenges are different, and there seem to be many more of them.

The days of cable public affairs in a single-product, single-provider environment are long gone. So, too, are the days when public-affairs success was measured primarily by a less onerous franchise renewal, placement of a news release in the local newspaper, or winning a seat for the company's general manager on a local board.

This isn't to suggest that these measurements are no longer relevant-they are. But as our business has become more sophisticated, the ways by which we measure public-affairs effectiveness must become more sophisticated, as well.

In this increasingly competitive, multiple-product, multiple-provider marketplace, the strategic focus of public affairs has changed. Public-affairs professionals will be judged based on how well they align with and support the strategic business objectives of their respective companies. The public-affairs "stars" will be those who can quantify the impact their efforts have had on their companies'bottom lines.

Success no longer can be measured simply by the "column inches" of media coverage. In today's increasingly competitive arena, public-affairs success is measured by something far more significant to a company's long-term profitability: contribution to revenue and market-share growth.

As one CTPAA board member has observed, it's no longer a battle for media coverage or visibility, but for the "hearts, minds and wallets" of consumers faced with a dizzying array of telecommunications options and viewing choices.

The challenge today, at least on the system-operating side, isn't so much to create awareness of cable-provided digital video, data and telephony products, as much as it is to create an environment where consumers are willing to change long-standing habits and actually purchase these products. And it's far easier to sell these exciting services if effective and integrated public-affairs efforts have helped to pave the way.

This new climate places a premium on aggressive and vigorous cooperation with our marketing and advertising colleagues, all of whom are charged with promoting business growth.

Strong evidence of this co-operation is visible in the CTPAA's "Beacon Awards," the annual program recognizing the best in cable public affairs. Increasingly, Beacon Awards finalists represent those effective public-relations programs that not only are integrated with marketing and advertising, but also are clearly aligned with-and advance-the business objectives of the company.

And our "President's Award" winners for 2000-Tom Johnson from Cable News Network, Jim Robbins from Cox Communications Inc. and Rob Stoddard from AT & T Broadband-are industry executives who not only have championed public affairs, but have led the way toward bottom-line-oriented public-affairs initiatives.

As the industry continues to evolve, the CTPAA has grown and evolved to meet the changing needs of its membership. The association was originally formed to promote and recognize excellence in industry public affairs, and this still is essential to the CTPAA's mission. In fact, the annual forum conference and Beacon Awards remain the organization's most visible activities.

But at a strategic-planning session last year involving the CTPAA's board of directors and representatives of other industry organizations, the CTPAA emphasized two goals that are important to the organization's success: mobilizing grassroots support for the industry's policy and business objectives, and developing partnerships with other industry organizations.

These goals are critical to meeting the needs of the CTPAA's two key constituencies-its individual and corporate members.

And this collaborative spirit is well represented on the CTPAA board, which includes executives from the National Cable Television Association, the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, Cable in the Classroom, the Cable-television Advertising Bureau and Cable Television Laboratories Inc., in addition to representatives from cable operating companies, programmers and other industry members.

These two objectives will drive much of the CTPAA's future activities, as its dedicated board and energetic new executive director, Steve Jones, work with the above organizations and others to align our efforts in support of the industry's public-policy positions and the business objectives of our member companies.

Fortunately, as the industry has evolved, its commitment to public affairs seems as strong as ever, and one need look no further than CTPAA to prove the point. Corporate support remains strong, and although there are fewer traditional cable companies today, corporate membership continues to increase.

Of course, the CTPAA is first and foremost a professional membership organization, and individual membership is also strong and continuing to grow. While consolidation may mean fewer and fewer companies, the ranks of industry public-affairs professionals in the field continue to swell.

This encouraging trend strongly suggests that the industry is investing in public-affairs resources not only at the corporate level, but also at the grassroots level, where a company's image is largely earned and, just as important, where consumer purchasing decisions are made.

It's a wise investment, and it's good business. A strong local presence and the ability to leverage that presence to encourage customer loyalty and a willingness to buy new products is a competitive advantage that can help to differentiate us from our growing list of competitors.

John Wolfe is vice president of government and public affairs for Cox Communications Inc.'s New England operations. He is completing his second term as president of the Cable Television Public Affairs Association.