ANALYSIS: Client Profile - AOL Time Warner's PR caught in the crossfire. With a January 2000 merger, AOL Time Warner was born as the giant of all media companies. As Claire Atkinson reports, its public relations office is earning praise and criticis

With a market capitalization of dollars 187.5 billion dollars, AOL Time Warner is America's eighth-largest firm, trailing the likes of General Motors and Intel. But being a media company - the world's biggest - it attracts a special brand of journalistic attention.

With a market capitalization of dollars 187.5 billion dollars, AOL Time Warner is America's eighth-largest firm, trailing the likes of General Motors and Intel. But being a media company - the world's biggest - it attracts a special brand of journalistic attention.

With a market capitalization of dollars 187.5 billion dollars, AOL Time Warner is America's eighth-largest firm, trailing the likes of General Motors and Intel. But being a media company - the world's biggest - it attracts a special brand of journalistic attention.

Ed Adler, SVP of corporate communications, believes the company is sometimes covered with the kind of media scrutiny that is usually reserved for the government.

Adler began with the firm when it was still Time. He saw it through the Warner Bros merger in 1990 and the Time Warner Turner merger in 1996.

He admits that in January 2000, when America Online's purchase of Time Warner was announced, he wondered whether he could go through it all over again. But he survived yet another melding of corporate departments and emerged with a reputation for adaptability.

His counterpart at AOL, Kathy Bushkin, moved out of corporate communications to head the newly merged firm's philanthropic foundation, leaving Adler to direct a 50/50 team of former AOL and Time Warner staff. There have been low-level PR staff losses as a result of the merger, but Adler won't comment on who or how many were cut loose.

Adler gained a new boss with the deal. He now reports to EVP Ken Lerer, a good friend of co-COO Bob Pittman. Lerer joined AOL last year, just weeks before the merger announcement, from Robinson, Lerer, Montgomery.

(Lerer has since sold his share of the agency he part-owned). RLM remains the agency of record for AOL Time Warner, ousting Time Warner's long-standing IR partner, Kekst & Co.



Not-so-instant messenger

Lerer runs the integrated function, but he remains hands-on with the media. To give some idea of the power of this PR operation, heavyweight reporters from major media outlets refused to speak on the record about their encounters with the media giant's new PR lineup.

One daily reporter says things have gotten out of hand: 'They try to control and dictate every word we write to an unrealistic level,' he says, explaining that executives stipulate that comments are off the record unless approved in advance.

He adds: 'Ken runs things in an incredibly controlled fashion. Time Warner has historically been very different.' When the reporter wrote an article quoting analysts who had a view of the firm that wasn't in tune with AOL Time Warner's, the company told him his story was 'wrong.'

Another media reporter describes an atmosphere of paranoia. 'They seem far more suspicious. They always think there's something else going on,' the reporter says, though he adds that access to senior executives is still pretty good. '(But) they are less forthcoming today than they've been in the past. The style is definitely different. The whole process is more bureaucratic. I get the feeling they have to have 30 meetings before they'll get back to me.'

Adler says the PR philosophy hasn't changed much since the merger, but admits that he's taken note of some of AOL techniques. 'AOL Inc. was more coordinated. They had good communication throughout their disciplines, and we've adopted some of that.'

According to a story on media Web site Inside.com (February 1), AOL Time Warner has a new policy of asking its own publicists to send a daily memo to corporate HQ about pieces being written by reporters. Company executives are also told to inform PR people of any interviews they do.

Adler insists little has changed. 'The fact that we put stuff on paper now is because of the size of the company. I've been doing a weekly report for years now. It's smart business. People want management to know what they're doing, and it elevates the importance of PR in the structure.'

Paul Bond, new media editor at trade magazine Hollywood Reporter, says his experiences with AOL Inc.'s media relations have been largely positive.

'I've always found AOL and WB online very open,' says Bond, adding that the difficulties have always been with the old media outlets at Time Warner.



Magical world of cross-promotion

Beyond media relations, Adler has a lot of balls to keep in the air. Though he's not responsible for investor relations or public affairs, he has to stay in touch with colleagues to know what's happening. During the merger, he spent days in meetings with lawyers to stay abreast of regulatory efforts.

Adler will not say how much notice he got of the merger. But he says there are challenges to operating during a merger. Igniting the wrath of the authorities is not advised.

He keeps in contact with the PR chiefs at each of the AOL Time Warner divisions. They include Ann Brackbill (AOL Inc.); Julia Sprunt (Turner Broadcasting System); Sue Binford (CNN); Richard Plepler (HBO); Peter Costiglio (Time Inc.); Barbara Brogliatti (Warner Bros); Lynn Yaeger, Mike Luftman (Time Warner Cable); Dawn Bridges (Warner Music); Steve Elzer (New Line Cinema); and Brad Turell (The WB).

The group meets by phone every two weeks to discuss projects and to consider ways they can support each other. For instance, they discussed the best ways of tackling layoff announcements. AOL Time Warner is planning to lose 2,400 people; the CNN division alone counts for 400.

The corporate communications team has been searching for ways to integrate and cross-promote. Warner Music and the WB Network are trying to extend the reach of Popstars, a TV show supported by AOL, and the Warner Bros' upcoming Harry Potter movie through AOL. 'You can't think it's just a movie story or story,' says Adler.

Such collaboration was not always so well evidenced. Last spring, as AOL executives were busy smoothing monopoly concerns at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington DC, Time Warner Cable was busy flexing its corporate muscle, dropping the ABC Network from nationwide systems as part of a - perhaps justified - reaction to a dispute with Disney over payments.

'The shutdown was a major deal for the press,' one media reporter says.

'They painted Time Warner as the behemoth, even though Disney is too. Some did that partly because they didn't like how Time Warner publicists had dealt with them in the past.'

The Disney episode was a good example of how important it can be to win the PR battle. Adler says, 'The message was, if taking off ABC was a mistake - and we got that word out once we realized that it was affecting us negatively - the key was to put an end to it.'

Once the merger was approved, corporate communications published an amusing employee newsletter, which included, among other things, 'Top 10 ways to know the deal is done.' There were jokes about the joining of each firm's brands: 'Friends is renamed Buddies' and 'Instant Messenger renamed Crossfire.'

Although the ink has no doubt already dried on the paper, remnants of the old regimes endure. Time Warner is still the domain name for Adler's e-mail address, for example. And it will likely be months before everyone's address is changed. Seems like there's a few kinks to iron out.



AOL TIME WARNER CORPORATE

EVP: Ken Lerer

SVP: Edward Adler

VP, corp comms: Tricia Primrose

VP, cross marketing initiatives: Wendy Goldberg

VP, project leader/writer: Tim Clifford

VP, internal comms: Suzanne Arden

Director of corp comms: Scott Miller

VP, public policy: Kathy McKiernan

SVP, investor relations: Richard Hanlon

Speechwriting, editorial director: Peter Quinn.





Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in