CEO Q&A: Courteney Monroe, National Geographic Channel

National Geographic Channel's new US CEO Courteney Monroe talks to Diana Bradley about innovative tech and crisis comms strategies.

As the new CEO, do you have any plans for a refresh at the channel?
If you looked at our programming schedule three years ago, 80% would have been comprised of one-off documentary specials.

In the past two years, we have evolved into a series-driven network. Now, 80% of our programming is comprised of series. The goal is to get people to watch us more and more and series television tends to bring people back week after week.

We have no plans to stray from this format, as it has proven successful for us. But to stay fresh, you always have to evolve. Even if there wasn’t a management change, we as a channel would be looking for ways to innovate and find new ways to tell stories.

What is your approach to PR?
We do most of our PR in-house and use agencies for specific projects. For instance, we use Beck Media & Marketing for trade PR; High 10 for our shows Wicked Tuna and Brain Games; and Glover Park Group for select political films. For us, it is about finding a firm that has a niche for a certain project versus using an AOR. With PR, we tend to find programs that we want to put a huge push behind, rather than doing minor pushes behind a whole bunch.

How does the content on your website and channel connect?
Our site – channel.nationalgeographic.com – sits within nationalgeographic.com, which is the master brand.

All of the content on our site connects to the shows that are on air. Sometimes people go to see when their favorite show is premiering but, mainly, our viewers love to learn more and dig deeper. We try to provide more context and information, as well as entertaining videos.

How do you incorporate social media into your PR strategy?
We have Facebook and Twitter accounts for our overall network, as well as for our individual shows. In addition to trying to leverage social media to cultivate fans, distribute content, and get our viewers to turn into brand ambassadors and evangelists to help spread the word about our channel, we are also investing heavily in second-screen technology on multiple platforms to extend the experience of our shows online. 

Last year, we aired the film Killing Kennedy, starring Rob Lowe. We built a parallax website (inset) allowing the audience to explore JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald’s dual paths. People spent up to an hour on that site, which was created as a place where people could dig deeper for more information after watching the movie on our channel. The hashtag #killingkennedy also trended on Twitter during this campaign.

What other outreach methods did you use to promote the show?
We took 40 journalists from around the world to Dallas on a press tour to relive JFK’s final day. As a part of this, we screened the film for them in the actual theater where Oswald was found and arrested.

It gave them an interesting combination of reliving the history while watching the film. We also created replicas of 1960s newsstands – stocked with newspapers – in New York; Washington, DC; and Los Angeles, as if you were stepping back to the day after JFK was shot. 

In March, the channel pulled TV series Nazi War Diggers after archeologists said the show handled the dead with disrespect. How did the communications team respond to this?
This happened under the control of the National Geographic Channel International. It was not on our team’s radar because it was never going to run in the states. But members of the public and press don’t always discern between the fact that this was an international situation, not a US one. 

And, just to make it more challenging, it all blew up on a Friday so our global communications team spent all weekend dealing with this. The key was to take immediate action because when the blogosphere starts to explode with misinformation, truth does not seem to matter anymore.

The decision was ultimately made to pull the show indefinitely from the international schedule. The most important step to dealing with the outcry was a quick and decisive response. Taking that action right away proved to be the best decision.

How do you engage staff?
I’m a firm believer that good ideas come from everywhere. As CEO, it is about having a transparent culture, making sure everyone understands what the key priorities are, and being open to ideas from everyone.

When I first assumed the CEO role [in April], I asked everyone for three ideas to improve the channel: What should we be doing more of, less of, and where can we improve? I wanted unfiltered thoughts, so people could share their ideas via email or anonymously. We created a big yellow box so staffers could submit their ideas. So far, I’ve received tons of thoughtful ideas. 

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