Profit slides and on-air talent shifts are but two of the challenges facing NBC Universal's new communications head. Is she ready for prime time?
Throughout her career at NBC News, Allison Gollust specialized in managing transitions, including those of the network's most famous faces. So it seems fitting that Gollust, NBC Universal's new EVP of corporate communications, is now crafting the public image of a global brand facing obstacles on a number of fronts.
“It is a global company with 30,000 employees, and being able to tell the entire story is a challenge,” says Jeff Zucker, Gollust's boss and president and CEO of NBC Universal. “I think articulating how we are going to navigate the ever-changing media landscape in challenging times is a pretty big task.
“She brings experience and a terrific way with people,” he adds. “I have complete and total trust in her.”
Gollust's move into the top communications position at NBC Universal, which was formed in 2004 via the combination of NBC and Vivendi Universal Entertainment, comes at a critical time for the company. Its broadcast network sits in fourth place in average prime-time viewership, behind rivals ABC, CBS, and FOX. In addition, Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, left the company, which is co-owned by General Electric and Vivendi, in late July. NBC Universal also saw its second-quarter 2009 profit slide 41%, year-over-year.
If that weren't enough, the company is also moving late-night stalwart Jay Leno to 10pm, a move that NBC executives recently told The New York Times is “like, in effect, launching five shows” and “a transformational moment in the history of broadcasting.”
“NBC has big prime-time challenges, which we've all heard and read about, but if Jay Leno takes off in a big way, they're in the clear,” says Jon Freidman, media Web columnist at MarketWatch. “They are saving money. If they look like trailblazers, you can be damn sure that every other TV network will be studying the evidence.”
He adds, however, that a great year from another NBC Universal division, such as motion pictures, could blunt the ill effects of a bad year for TV entertainment.
On that challenge, Gollust says, “All of the networks are feeling pressure heading into a new season. Obviously, the spotlight is white hot on us, going back to this notion of innovating, changing the model, and being three steps ahead.”
Gollust clarifies that NBC Universal is not the only company facing difficulties. “There are a lot of hurdles for everyone right now,” she says, adding that the company must take advantage of all avenues available to tell its story.
“We have to constantly refine our messages, we need to have a seat at the table, and we need to take advantage of every opportunity there is in every medium to tell our story,” she says. “If you don't tell your own story, someone will tell it for you.”
One way the company is doing so is by making its late-night talent a part of the messaging. Gollust recently helped organize a press tour for Leno, which she says portrayed his positive attitude about the new time slot.
“You use your assets, and in this case our assets were Jay, Conan O'Brien, and Jimmy Fallon – three guys in the midst of transitions who have done really well,” she adds.
Gollust, who previously served as VP and later SVP of NBC News Communications, explains that NBC Universal, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, has changed most drastically in terms of the technology it uses and the size of the company. With technology in mind, she sees coordination among departments as a priority in her new role, which she began in July.
“It is daunting, and I think that constant coordination is the best way to plan ahead,” she says. “As I speak of the different divisions, especially on the communications side, there are a lot of similarities. Sharing best practices is something that all of us should do more.”
And while helming communications at a major media organization, such as NBC News, is a large task, Gollust is adjusting to oversight of NBC Universal's other properties. Those range from local English- and Spanish-language TV affiliates, to the film companies that have produced movies such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Brokeback Mountain, to the Universal-branded theme parks and resorts in the US and Japan. She adds that a priority is to learn the minutiae of the various non-news departments, with which she is less familiar.
Each morning, Gollust speaks with Zucker, for whom she also serves as spokesperson. She also hosts a conference call with top communications pros from the company's various departments. Those department heads, she notes, are jousting with a more diverse, quick-to-publish, and opinionated media than in the past. They're also dealing with a greater range of outlets, from blogs to Web sites to traditional media.
“When a reporter called you with a question, you generally had at least until the end of the day. Even if someone called you at 3pm, it felt like a real push to manage that piece and to get the answers that the reporter would need by the end of the day,” she says. “Now you get a phone call, and sometimes you don't even get one because there's the case of posting first and asking questions later, but deadlines are much tighter because people are publishing their information much faster.”
On the way to NBC Universal's top PR post, Gollust supervised messaging for numerous anchor changes, both planned and unplanned. She oversaw communications when Brian Williams replaced Tom Brokaw at NBC Nightly News and when Meredith Vieira replaced Katie Couric at Today. The latter was especially difficult because it involved talent going to and coming from competing networks.
Yet the most painful transition occurred after the unexpected June 2008 death of Meet the Press host Tim Russert. Because of Brokaw's continuing association with the network, NBC News was able to extend the transition period to new host David Gregory. The circumstances were a marked contrast to Brokaw's retirement, before which NBC introduced Williams to viewers over a year-long period via local affiliates.
“It was easily the most difficult thing that I faced in my job,” recalls Gollust. “Tim was a friend and colleague, and you want to deal with the emotion of that. But from the instant when I got the first phone call of what happened, it was my job to deal with it.”
In some ways, Gollust is uniquely positioned – Zucker cites her “keen understanding of how the news media works” – to perceive the press' interests because of her experience as both a journalist and communicator. Prior to joining the network as senior publicist for Today, where she first worked with Zucker, she was a TV journalist in the Denver area.
NBC Universal has many visible challenges, including the increasingly digital nature of media content and evolving viewer habits. The company is also a co-owner of Hulu, the online video content portal where viewers are increasingly watching NBC's shows and other content on their own schedules. Gollust says the company's communications model must evolve in turn.
“We are well positioned on the digital side, with Hulu being a very good Web site,” she explains. “I think everyone would agree that you have to be open-minded and acknowledge that the business model is changing. You have to change with it.”
INSIDE NBC UNIVERSAL
NBC Universal Television Group
Represents the various NBC-owned and -operated local affiliates in the US and Telemundo-owned affiliates. It also includes NBC Entertainment
NBC Universal Digital Media
Encompasses iVillage.com, a site for women, and Hulu.com, an online video service. Disney/ABC became a partner in the service, which saw large viewer increases this year
Runs Universal Pictures, Focus Features, and Universal Studios Home Entertainment. Has buoyed anti-piracy resources, naming ex-NBC Universal comms chief Cory Shields to top role
Universal theme parks
Operates Universal Studios Holly-wood, Universal Orlando Resort, as well as a venue in Japan. New parks being built in Dubai and Singapore
NBC Universal, EVP, corporate communications
May 2005-July 2009
SVP, NBC News Communications
VP, NBC News Communications
Senior publicist, Today
Began work at NBC as a publicist for NBC Corporate Communications. Previously, she worked as director of communications at Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids and as a news anchor, reporter, and producer in Colorado.