Ellen East is Cox Communications Inc.'s chief spokesperson, but you won't see her quoted often these days in stories about the cable company.
East, a former newspaper reporter who worked her way up at Cox to vice president of communications after joining the cable company in 1993, prefers to handle communications more from a strategic perspective, and to put reporters in touch with key Cox executives rather than handle the interviews herself.
"I like to be the middle man between the reporter and the subject-matter expert. That was always my philosophy. I think it's because I understood what I was looking for when I was a reporter," said East, 42, who was an editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
before joining Cox Enterprises (the MSO's majority shareholder) as communications manager in 1990.
As for strategic communications, the biggest story on East's plate during the last year has been Cox's contract negotiations with ESPN. The companies have waged a bitter public battle over ESPN's rate, with Cox pushing to put ESPN on a sports tier.
The dispute came to a head in November, when ESPN launched a major ad campaign in Cox markets, arguing why the network shouldn't be placed in a sports tier. Cox ran its own newspaper ads in major papers featuring a granny wearing a catcher's mask to demonstrate its argument that not all subscribers want to pay for sports programming.
Cox chief operating officer Patrick Esser said East began planning Cox's public campaign deriding the rising costs of sports programming in spring 2002, after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked the General Accounting Office to examine the causes of rising cable rates and to study what would happen if operators were to offer their most expensive basic-cable networks to customers ála carte.
"Ellen and her team monitored that closely, and they came to us in the summer  ahead of the issue," Esser said. "Washington and consumers were making this a bigger issue — we needed to get out ahead of it."
Cox has changed dramatically since East joined the company. In 1993, the MSO was still privately held. It counted 1.5 million customers, offered just one product — analog video — and there was no satellite competition.
Cox went public in 1995 and is now the fourth-largest cable MSO with 6.6 million basic subscribers. Cox has been the most aggressive U.S. operator in rolling out telephony services, offering customers bundled packages of digital video, high-speed data and voice.
After Cox lost out in the bidding for AT&T Broadband in 2001, East said the company took steps to ensure that it maintained a reputation for innovation and leadership. "When we did not win the bidding process for AT&T Broadband, we knew that we were going to be the fourth-largest cable company but we were going to be way smaller than the top two [Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable]. And we wanted to make sure that we maintained a leadership position in the industry despite the fact that we were going to be much smaller."
Cox then outlined what it wanted to be known for, from customer service and community relations to product development, and stressed those attributes in every media interview and employee communication, East added.
"We want to be known for being a full-service provider. We want our customers to know we are their best choice for broadband communications services in their community. We want them to know we provide the best customer service out of any of their choices at the local level.
"We want to be known on Wall Street for having a smart management team — a good company to invest in, that we make smart decisions," East said.
Cox has won several industry awards, including honors from J.D. Power and Associates, which ranked its local telephone service the highest in overall customer satisfaction.
Esser, who praised East's leadership skills, said East's department, where she oversees a staff of 16, is a crucial part of the company. "As you travel around and talk to people who interface with her regularly inside the company and outside, you would hear them say words about her as being passionate, persuasive, articulate, bright, strong organizational skills," Esser said.
East said she decided in high school that she wanted to pursue a career as a reporter. She began writing for her high school newspaper in Burnsville, Minn., after her English teacher assigned students to write obituaries on presidential candidate and former Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey, with the winning story getting published in the school paper.
East won the contest.
"Months later the editor of the school newspaper told me the reason mine won was because I typed it."
After graduating from the University of Alabama in 1983, where she was editor of the college newspaper, East "did the typical journalism nomad thing," working for a few newspapers in Alabama before getting a job at the Journal-Constitution, owned by Cox Enterprises.
She worked her way up to assistant city editor, and later applied for a job as communications manager at Cox Enterprises, as she wanted to spend more time with her son Kevin.
"My first husband and I had divorced. I had a 2-year-old child and I was trying to still do the newsroom job and be a single mom, and it was the hardest thing I've ever done, being a single mom," East said.
East remarried after joining Cox Enterprises, and she and her husband David, who works as an engineer at Cox Enterprises, have an 11-year-old daughter, Hannah. The Easts own a lake house in Georgia, and the "family sport is wakeboarding," East said.
East said she sees long-term opportunities for advancement at Cox Enterprises. "I don't have any real plan. I love what I do, and as long as I love what I do I'm going to keep doing it."
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