With over a thousand broadcast outlets under its domain, Clear Channel navigates federal regulations and public perception with a far-flung strategy focused on setting the record straight.
The days leading up to the morning of April 29, 2005, were stressful for Lisa Dollinger.
As SVP of communications for media giant Clear Channel Communications, Dollinger was among the handful of insiders who knew the company was about to announce plans to spin off its outdoor ad and entertainment divisions from its radio and TV groups, ultimately producing three separate publicly traded companies: Clear Channel Communications, Clear Channel Outdoor, and Clear Channel Entertainment.
"Though we'd been working on the mechanics of this realignment for quite a while, only a few of our key executives were part of this process," Dollinger says. "Obviously, it was extremely confidential. A leak would have been potentially very damaging, so the small project team had to work quietly and quickly, particularly in the week preceding the announcement."
Fortunately, the big day went precisely as planned. The announcement and earnings releases crossed the wires to coincide with a Wall Street Journal article. An aggressive internal effort was launched, including e-mail notification, an employee hotline, an employee conference call, and an online Q&A with CEO Mark Mays and CFO Randall Mays. The quarterly earnings conference call began early the same morning, and Dollinger's ground forces coordinated a TV appearance with company leaders, and fielded a barrage of media and investor calls.
It was a relentless pace that demanded meticulous planning, fortuitous timing, and flawless execution that can only be achieved by a well-oiled machine. And when you are an industry leader that touches the lives of literally millions every day, you'd better be sharp. But that daunting market share has also put the company in the crosshairs of critics.
In the line of fire
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 eased Federal Communications Commission regulations, allowing companies to own many more radio signals than before. Clear Channel has since swelled to own roughly 9% of US radio stations, representing 18% of the industry's revenue. This has had the effect of dangling a large target for critics and conspiracy theorists alike.
"Any time you're perceived as the big guy, there is a whole set of challenges you deal with that smaller, mid-level, and even private companies do not," says Erica Farber, publisher and CEO of Radio & Records, an LA-based trade publication. "There are a lot of things said about Clear Channel that aren't necessarily true, but consumer media has done a pretty aggressive job of reporting what it thinks is going on."
And that creates unique challenges for the company, because it forces Clear Channel to defend its positions rather than be on the offensive, Farber adds. But lately the company has become more aggressive, talking about what it is doing on its terms, and not letting others define the company.
Clear Channel - which purchased its first FM station in San Antonio, Texas, back in 1972 - had revenue of $9.4 billion last year, and its properties now include 1,200 radio stations, more than 30 television stations, international radio interests, Premiere Radio Networks, Katz Media, and a 90% stake in the outdoor company, among other media outlets in other countries.
Despite the size and scope of its operations, Clear Channel did not establish a corporate communications department until April 2003.
Undoubtedly, forming the new unit was due in part to the constant media fire the company drew throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, weathering attacks on everything from allegations of abusing its dominant market positions to the much-ballyhooed banning by one of its stations (but not parent Clear Channel itself) of the band Dixie Chicks for criticizing President Bush.
Clear Channel has a lean corporate staff, with the great majority of its communicators distributed across many media and entertainment businesses throughout the US and in 65 countries.
At Clear Channel's San Antonio headquarters, Dollinger has three full-time employees and about 25 dedicated professionals in the field who manage communications within their respective businesses.
Dollinger landed the top communications post after just a few months as VP for marketing and communication at Clear Channel Radio, which operates the largest network of stations in the US. She served as SVP of corporate communications until she was promoted in April of this year to chief communications officer.
"My first task in 2003 was to communicate the facts about how the company operates," Dollinger says. "We worked diligently to provide facts, figures, and access to executives to the media outlets that cover our company."
It was during this time that Dollinger hired New York-based Brainerd Communicators. "The first thing we did was pursue corrections, retractions, and apologies for more than three years of misinformation in the media," says Michele Clarke, managing director at Brainerd. "Let me say that three years of coverage for a company like Clear Channel is a long time and a lot of copy."
On a daily basis, Dollinger works with management to shape the positioning of the company, as well as working with opinion leaders, reporters, and editors to ensure that they have the facts about Clear Channel businesses and people.
Tuned in across the world
To keep the global communication network humming the same tunes, Dollinger instituted a weekly conference call, during which divisional communicators from across the globe huddle to share insight into their businesses, opportunities, and challenges.
"You had a scenario where many people were trying to solve the same problems many different ways," Clarke says. "By drawing together the entire global communications into a cohesive team, Lisa created a force much more powerful than the sum of its parts."
Headquartered in London as communications director for operations outside the Americas, James Craven is a regular participant in these calls.
The constant communication within the company is critical, Craven says. Many issues that crop up in the US tend to hit Europe a bit later. Pulling communications staff from every division to share information, address issues, and solicit feedback is vital.
Craven expressed his irritation upon opening an issue of the Irish Independent and reading a critical article on Clear Channel that not only cited the wrong number of stations owned, but regurgitated an inaccurate claim that the company banned certain songs.
"Far too often, when journalists do their reporting, they'll simply enter our brand into a search engine and take whatever comes back as gospel," adds Craven. "It is my job to reach out to such journalists and send them background information and fact sheets. It is becoming less common, but there is still such a mass of wrong information out there."
"We've spent a lot of time making sure people know about the massive amount of community service our businesses do locally and the company does on a national scale," Dollinger adds.
For example, Clear Channel made an up-front commitment - $120 million in donated media value - to support Ad Council campaigns across all of its properties in 2004, eventually running spots that could have produced $138 million in ad revenue.
This year, Clear Channel is on the same pace, notes Peggy Conlon, president and CEO of the Ad Council.
"The Ad Council is ideal for an organization like Clear Channel, because we have somewhere around 50 different causes at any given time," Conlon says. "This means that the individual station managers can select PSAs that make sense for Clear Channel's local markets. The beauty is that they don't have to get bogged down in promoting one campaign over the next, because we have something for everyone."
The company hopes to garner positive media attention for its sponsorship of a global advertising campaign to raise awareness for pediatric AIDS victims. Clear Channel will provide outdoor ad space in 65 countries. While the company has yet to announce a dollar figure, Clarke places the value in the multimillions.
Dollinger and her teams continue to work aggressively with media to make sure the coverage is accurate and balanced. And this includes re-educating the media and others to provide a better understanding of the company, the important work being done in the industries it leads, and the long-term growth potential of its businesses, says Dollinger.
"[We want] to control the message by exercising the greatest care and discipline in the way we communicate to all of our constituencies," says Dollinger.
SVP, chief communications officer Lisa Dollinger
VP of communications (international) James Craven
PR agency Brainerd Communicators