Pete Abel, Vice President, Corporate Communications, Suddenlink Communications
Please tell us what your career path has been. For instance, when and where did you start working in communications? When did you start working for the cable industry?
Starting in 1985, I worked as a part-time, freelance reporter for a small weekly newspaper chain in suburban St. Louis. By 1988, the chain was publishing its various papers twice weekly and I joined them as a full-time staff writer. I left journalism in 1989 for Fleishman-Hillard, which was then a small PR firm and is today one of the world's largest (and still, in my clearly biased opinion, one of the best).
During my 14 years at Fleishman, I worked for a long list of clients, including Monsanto, Procter & Gamble, Harrah's Entertainment, ConAgra, Johnson & Johnson, Anheuser-Busch, Dell, SBC Communications (now AT&T), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On behalf of those clients, I managed teams of up to 30 professionals who contributed to projects that spanned a range of disciplines, from marketing to crisis management.
In May 2003, I left Fleishman to join Cequel III, a telecommunications management firm led by cable-industry veteran Jerry Kent. At the time, Cequel's management portfolio included a wireless tower company (AAT), a small, rural cable company (Classic), and in short order, a longhaul data and voice transport company (Broadwing). Initially, I was a department of one and supported the executive communications and general PR needs of all three companies.
From 2003 through 2006, Cequel's portfolio changed dramatically, as the company moved its Broadwing role from management partner to investor/customer (in 2004); sold AAT (in early 2006); and transformed (and quadrupled in size) its cable operations with two major, back-to-back acquisitions from Cox and Charter (in mid 2006). At that point, our small department (two others and me) were exclusively focused on cable.
What skills do you think a cable communicator needs to advance in his or her career? How did you acquire those skills? How have the communications skills you've acquired helped your career advancement?
I think cable communicators need the same skills that all professional communicators need to advance their careers. In my career, these three were the most critical.
- Organizing and structuring information – I learned early on that “good” communication (viz., good business communication) is well-structured communication. Professional communicators must have an extraordinary ability to take complex material, slice and dice and re-assemble it in a way that even the simplest minds can understand it. I suspect there are multiple ways to learn and develop this skill. For me, it started in college with the discipline of seeking out the more demanding math, science, foreign language, and other structure/process-intensive classes (above and beyond what my major required), and then applying the lessons learned in those classes to public communications. I did something similar after I started in the cable industry: I spent as much time as I could with the engineers and ops managers and accountants because I wanted to understand the method behind their madness. Those methods revealed patterns and processes and ways of organizing things, and in turn, enhanced the pattern/process/structure/effectiveness of our communications.
- Making the written and spoken word “sing” – If good communication starts with good organization, then great communication is born when communicators apply that unique turn of phrase; when they express something mundane in a spectacular way. The better that communicators are at transforming prose into lyrical or creative expression, the better their prose will be remembered and understood, and the farther they will advance. Why? Because so few people can do this and do it well. And to develop this skill, I think you have to make word- and thought-construction a constant hobby or habit. For me, that “constant habit” has involved a lot of different activities, some professional, some not, such as: (a) toying around with copy multiple ways, even if it requires me to stay late or work extra hours; (b) checking the thesaurus for different words even when the same-old words will do; (c) playing crossword puzzles; (d)composing songs with lyrics on the piano, just for fun – and the list goes on.
- Learning and applying new knowledge: The demands of PR agency-life did much to help me hone this skill. One minute, we'd be promoting a beer company's gimmick; the very next, we'd be developing copy for a technology company's public policy debate. Trust me: It's much easier to learn the next-great cable technology than it is to learn the nuances of one industry versus an entirely different one. However, the base skill is the same: you must be able to rapidly learn each new industry, product, technique, or technology (drinking through a fire hose without drowning), and then turn around and apply that knowledge to either written and/or multi-media communications.
How do you keep up with communications trends and changes in the cable industry? Which of these changes or trends do you think is the most important to your career?
I'm not sure I have a good answer to the second part of that question. Regarding the first part, I expect the way I keep up is very similar to what my peers do: I rely on the ACC; I read cable- and telecom-related material constantly (from both the trades and mainstream press); I attend key conferences and shows, whenever possible. And I force my company and industry peers (subject matter experts in everything from communications to programming; from marketing to engineering; from IT to finance) to explain to me – in formal and informal settings – their “takes” on what's new, what's going on, what's hot, what's not, what works, what doesn't.
Ann Carlsen, founder and CEO of Carlsen Resources, an executive search firm, said in an interview in CableFAX Daily that this the age of the specialist, and they have become more employable than generalists. Do you agree with this? If so, how have you seen it reflected in your career or in those of your colleagues?
I don't have the advantage of Ann's knowledge of industry- and profession-wide trends, so I won't dispute her claim. But in-house at Suddenlink, I've built our team around generalists. Given the size of our company and department, if we can't all do a little of everything, we miss out on opportunities and fall behind. What's more, because I “grew up” in the communications field as a generalist, I tend to favor generalists.
That said, as our company grows and changes, there are two areas where specialists will (or may be) necessary, on either an in-house or outsourced basis.
1. Financial communications/investor relations
2. New media/Web 2.0
In the latter area, I know enough to be dangerous, and I believe (in the end) a good communicator in old media can learn to be a good communicator in new media. But there is a larger set of skills related to new media – e.g., monitoring, aggregating, analyzing information – which supports the communication function but isn't directly related to the “classic” communicators' skill set.
Have you had any mentors along the way? Who has helped you the most and how?
I've had several mentors, but I can't say any one of them helped me more than the others. Those listed here were supervisors at different times during my career at the PR agency: Paul Siemer taught me the value of tireless energy and mind-bending creativity, of making the printed and spoken word “sing.” Terri Vogt taught me the value of discipline, of organization and structure. Jim Morice taught me the value of constantly (and rapidly) learning and applying new knowledge. Dave Senay taught me how critically important it is to make sure our clients/employers understand the value of what we do for them; how our work can directly impact their business results.
What was the biggest mistake in your career and what did you learn from it?
Two or three years into my communications career at Fleishman, I misrepresented who I was, in order to obtain information from a source that was making life difficult for one of our clients. I was caught in the act and nearly fired over it. I realized then and there that, no matter how noble the cause, you simply cannot lie in this profession. Too often, PR professionals are labeled “spin doctors.” But I know (as do many of my peers) that we are obligated (and should be) to hold ourselves to the highest standards of honesty and integrity.
How has membership in professional organizations such as ACC impacted your career?
I'm only six months into our ACC membership, but I did benefit greatly from professional workshops conducted under the auspices of the Arthur Page Society, which I attended while at Fleishman. Those workshops were led by some of the best and brightest minds in PR, culled from diverse industries. They opened my eyes to the strategic, business-impacting aspects of what we all do for a living; to the reality that what we do is about much more than “good communication.” It's about honestly and fairly securing and sustaining stakeholders' permission for our companies/clients to operate with the least possible degree of interference.
Do you have any further career advice for your fellow cable communicators?
I don't have “additional” advice, but I would take the opportunity to reiterate three of my previous points.
1. The (rapid) learning and application of new knowledge will take you very far.
2. Honesty/integrity must be at the foundation of everything you do.
3. At the end of the day, your core value proposition will be found not in the news clips you generate, but in your ability to gain and sustain stakeholders' permission for your clients/employers to operate freely.