When Brian Eley, a seasoned television PR pro, decided to make the jump from The Learning Channel to Animal Planet, he knew the job might throw him in the middle of the jungle - just not on the first day.
Starting on September 5, 2006 - the day after network star Steve Irwin died - Eley, the director of communications, jumped right in, fielding several media calls to coordinate interviews with Animal Planet personality Jeff Corwin for comment on the situation.
"Everyone was pretty much in triage," Eley recalls. "Jeff was shooting in a remote part of Alaska - I had to track him down and charter a small plane from Fairbanks to retrieve him."
That task presented one of many in which Eley had not engaged in before joining the wild world of Animal Planet, and though his latest challenge - overseeing communications during the cable TV channel's re-launch this month - marked one of the most daunting, it won't be his last.
"With this job, you have to plan, but be prepared for everything to go not as planned," Eley says. "But when it comes off - like getting a story in the Times or pulling a 'hat trick' [having Animal Planet personalities appear on the late-night shows of Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, and Carson Daly on the same night] - it's thrilling."
Eley, who spent most his career with PBS, walked into Animal Planet during a time of upheaval. The new CEO at Discovery Communications, David Zaslav, and the new GM of the network, Marjorie Kaplan, wanted Animal Planet to bite back after five years of taking a beating in the ratings.
"We knew we had to do something different," Eley recalls, "but it seemed we needed more than just a refresh." That "something different" wound up as an entire rebranding, from the type of programs the network broadcast to its core signature: the popular elephant touching the earth logo.
"The Animal Planet brand was a safe one for many consumers, but research pointed out we hadn't delivered things they expected - like the 'planet' part of Animal Planet," says Patricia Kollappallil, VP of communications and Eley's boss. "When we started, we worked on tweaking the look and attitude of the channel, but it's a very long process in getting the stories we needed from the natural world."
Signs of the shift appeared last summer, when Sopranos-themed Meerkat Manor ads - highlighting the series about feuding mongoose mobs - started appearing in train stations and bus stops. But Animal Planet decided to go with a bigger push for the winter, especially its new shows, Escape to Chimp Eden and A Year with Lions.
In late January, the network hired photographer Jill Greenberg to shoot print ads, redesign its Web site, and unveil its new logo.
When Kollappallil was called to India in late November, Eley oversaw all the moving pieces. On February 3, it relaunched during Puppy Bowl and held an event in New York the following day.
"Brian is just very cool under pressure. He can think when under the gun and he's super diplomatic," Kollappallil says. "When you're in our business, you have to deal with the big personalities and have the conversations about the mundane things. Brian can do all of it."
So far, the efforts of Eley and the communications team have netted results. On the day of the launch, ratings were up 35%. Eley also secured coverage in The New York Times, as well as several other prominent publications.
Eley knows there remains a lot of work in introducing cable viewers to the new, cagier Animal Planet. "But once you have really strong content, content in which you believe, it's easy to pitch and partner with media outlets," he asserts. "We can bring a lot of ideas and our own expertise to the table."
Director of comms, Animal Planet
July 2003-August 2006
Communications manager, The Learning Channel
Dec. 1999-March 2003
Director of media relations, advertising, and brand promotion, KQED Public Broadcasting, San Francisco