Ellen Kroner, senior vice president, corporate communications and marketing, Rainbow Media Holdings, LLC
Please tell us what your career path has been. For instance, when and where did you start working in communications?
My first communications job was as the newsletter writer for Showtime's affiliate newsletter in 1980.
When did you start working for the cable industry? 1980
What skills do you think a cable communicator needs to advance in his or her career?
Interpersonal and writing skills. You must be able to know how to “read the room” and then how to effectively write about it. The powers of persuasion in person and in writing are key skills for any communicator.
How did you acquire those skills?
As a college student I excelled in expository writing, so writing has always been something of special interest to me. This interest led me to classes on how to write for business and specifically for public relations but nothing really prepares you for that first writing job. My first non-clerical position was as assistant editor at a small magazine, where I learned to how to tell the story succinctly, add a little pizzazz when necessary and do it quickly and on deadline.
How have the communications skills you've acquired helped your career advancement?
In my current job overseeing Rainbow's communications, I call on my interpersonal and writing skills every day. Besides advising the CEO on effective internal and external communications, I manage nine executives who work in corporate marketing, media relations, special events, talent relations and internal communications. Many of them have dotted lines to General Managers or Division Presidents. Managing the information flow and relationships of this large and extremely diverse group requires clarity and consistency in the written and spoken word.
As you transitioned from publicity to corporate communications, were there additional skills you needed to acquire?
In my personal career path I was lucky enough to have a few jobs that included corporate communications along with publicity, so I had experience in crisis communications, corporate messaging, being a spokesperson, media training executives and handling business stories.
What are the major differences between the two fields?
They are enormously different. I am always surprised by how different both sides of my department are in terms of their skill sets. Corporate communicators are expert at building media visibility for their organization and its key business objectives. They do this by developing key messages, building media profiles for executives, managing incoming inquiries about both positive and potentially negative issues, acting as spokespeople and creating crisis plans when required. They must often react in the moment.
Program publicists are a completely different breed. Totally brand focused, their efforts are directed at increasing awareness and tune in for on air events, helping to drive ratings and brand loyalty. They must have relationships with hundreds of consumer television and entertainment writers and be able to cut through the enormous clutter of competing programming to win the necessary visibility for their project. They must be incredibly creative and develop stunts, special events and talent appearances that can elevate their project above the fray and help drive ratings.
What are effective ways for a publicist to work with and leverage talent?
Always think about what is in it for the talent, not what is in it for your show or your brand. Talent is generally only interested in promoting their show, their cause, or themselves. There is an area where your two interests overlap and it's important to find that sweet spot and use it to leverage your relationships.
How do you keep up with communications trends and changes in the cable industry?
Conferences and trade shows are very helpful. Of course, I read all of the trades and a large number of publications that cover all facets of the entertainment business. My colleagues at Cablevision help broaden my perspective beyond just a programmer's mind set, which helps provide a bigger industry picture to me and my team.
Which of these changes or trends do you think is the most important to your career?
The role of communicators in our industry has become more and more crucial as we face mounting competition and the growing need for positive public opinion. Being a senior communications executive now means having our own seat at the CEO's table instead of being relegated to a function of the marketing department. Corporate leaders are recognizing that aggressive and strategic communications are a key component in meeting revenue, ratings and branding goals. This trend, along with the development of multiple platforms and the overall pace of technological development, led Rainbow Media to centralize the communications staff across all of its brands to better harness that power.
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?
I would agree with this.
If so, how have you seen it reflected in your career or in those of your colleagues?
Because I oversee such a wide ranging group across the company, my own position is by necessity a generalist. However, the massive growth of entertainment and communications platforms has spawned a new set of specialists, and I agree that in the future it will be more and more important to have an area of expertise.
Have you had any mentors along the way?
I have had three mentors.
Who has helped you the most and how?
My first mentor was a movie studio executive who plucked me out of corporate television publicity and made me head of the studio's field publicity team. It was the biggest job I'd ever had and I had absolutely no experience. On my very first day I flew to LA to oversee a press junket for a movie starring Nick Nolte, who got drunk and punched out a reporter! But my boss supported me, and promoted me to Vice President within six months! I was the right person in the right place, at the right time.
My second mentor was another studio executive who saw that I could make the transition from Field Operations to National Publicity on a Vice Presidential level and made it happen for me. He promptly assigned me the studio's biggest films and quickly showed me that I could do anything I set my mind to. On my first day, I supervised a Vanity Fair cover shoot with Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. I was terrified but I figured it out.
My third mentor would be Josh Sapan, my current boss, and the CEO of Rainbow Media Holdings, who believed in me enough to hand me the reins of the new centralized communications team. In the past two years we have built this team together, and he's been a thoughtful, supportive and inspiring manager who has helped me deal with a number of challenges and celebrate a number of successes.
What was the biggest mistake in your career and what did you learn from it?
I think it was that, earlier in my career, I switched jobs because I was unhappy or felt dead ended, and not because it was the right strategic move. This slowed my progress up the corporate ladder. I was a senior vice president in 1998, and ended up having to step back to a VP level position for several years. It's part of a bigger life lesson for me, but the idea that patience is often a key to success has been a hard lesson for me to learn.
How has membership in professional organizations such as ACC impacted your career?
Industry organizations are effective because they help increase your list of contacts, provide support and camaraderie in your field, and often help you build important relationships.
Do you have any further career advice for your fellow cable communicators?
The industry is changing and we need to be flexible enough and creative enough to change with it. We bring enormous value to our company when we take the time to understand the business challenges and how our skill set contributes to helping meet those challenges. So I would say be confident in what you know, use your expertise to help your company rise above its challenges and stay current with both the cable and the communications industry trends.