CORPORATE CASE STUDY: Comcast focuses on its connection with customers

After three years of astonishing growth, Comcast stands as the world's largest cable outfit, thanks in no small part to a proactive PR plan and a long-standing family feeling.

After three years of astonishing growth, Comcast stands as the world's largest cable outfit, thanks in no small part to a proactive PR plan and a long-standing family feeling.

When David Shane began working for Comcast in 2000, he didn't just head up the PR operation for the cable company's Eastern division. He was the PR operation. But that wouldn't last long. Two major acquisitions later, what began as a solo operation in a Philadelphia office has grown dramatically, but in proportion to a company that has outpaced Time Warner to become the largest cable company in the world. Much of this growth has occurred in Shane's division, which is now 5.2 million subscribers strong with the recent purchase of AT&T Broadband, and sprawls from southern Maine to Washington, DC, and west to Harrisburg, PA. With 12 staffers, the division's corporate communications department has outposts in Boston and Trenton, NJ, as well as Philadelphia and its suburbs, where the company is headquartered. The department is responsible for dealing with the intense media attention that comes with being part of a company that rolls out new products on a regular basis, and part of an industry that takes constant heat for annual price hikes and other customer-service issues. In addition, the group handles PR for CN8, Comcast's 24-hour news, sports, and entertainment network. Despite a large volume of crisis communications that result from everything from outages to the performance of contract cable installers, Shane's team tries to avoid slogging through news cycles in a reactive mode. "We've been aggressive in terms of proactive media relations and selling our story," says Shane, VP of PR for the division. "The cable industry in general has been a little less aggressive. My division president has been very bullish on PR, and understands the value of selling our story and promoting what we do the right way." To be sure, being proactive is easier in a company that's organized the way Comcast is. Shane reports directly to division president Michael Doyle, a relationship that's mirrored in all the company's six divisions. At the corporate level, Karen Buchholz, VP for corporate communications, reports directly to EVP David Cohen, who in turn reports to Brian Roberts, the president and CEO. "We're a very decentralized company," says Buchholz. "Our folks in the field both live and work in the communities in which we serve customers. Our communicators that are out in the field are the face of the company in their areas. It's very important for our communicators to be able to speak directly to their customers." A family affair Shane and others speak of Comcast's family mentality, which makes perfect sense given the company's history. Two of its most familiar leaders are Roberts and his father, Ralph, one of the three men who, in 1963, bought American Cable Systems in Tupelo, MS. A decade later, the company was renamed and relocated to Philadelphia, where it began to grow by snapping up local cable outfits. In 2002, Comcast posted revenues of more than $12 billion, coming from a host of television networks, including news and sports programming and the retailer QVC, and, of course, the cable operations. But for all the growth, much of Comcast's history is shadowed by customer-service problems, a legacy that the company has by all accounts taken seriously, at least in recent years. A June Wall Street Journal article heralded many of Comcast's more recent strides in this area, including operators' ability to answer customer calls more quickly than they did in the past. Shane says that improvements such as the addition of call centers and technical advances that allow for the early detection of problems are an important part of Comcast's messaging strategy. But the good news was tempered by the industry's overall performance on studies such as the American Customer Satisfaction Index, in which cable companies like Cox Communications, Time Warner, and Comcast lag behind satellite television providers DirecTV and EchoStar Communications. "They're in a similar position to Microsoft," says John Higgins, deputy editor at trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable. "Everybody hates their cable company, but everybody's totally addicted to the product." Until recently, the customer-service problem was paired with a reluctance to talk to the media, something that Shane says has softened over the years. "One thing we've tried to do is chip away at the negative perception that cable television has," he explains. "The industry didn't focus on proactive PR. Just a few years ago, Comcast was a lot more conservative in terms of its media strategy, more reactive and less willing to talk about what the company was doing and in which direction we were moving." He chalks this change up to the increase in satellite TV competition, which in recent years has become substantial. DirecTV, for instance, had more than 11 million subscribers by the end of 2002 (compared to Comcast's current subscriber level of 21.4 million), and was third in sales in the broadcast and cable industry, behind only Comcast and Time Warner. "We're in a battle with satellite every day over basic customers," Shane says. "Because there aren't that many cable TV companies in the US, that push to be proactive on the cable side was never there. I think that as the industry got more aggressive in consolidating, the push to be more aggressive in selling our media message came along with that." However, not everyone sees the company's PR philosophy like Shane does. "They're definitely accessible," says Higgins, "but they're not the biggest self-promoters out there. It never strikes me that they're dying to get press the way other media companies are." Executive connections Shane can boast an auspicious relationship with his higher-ups that would be the envy of many in the PR field, a result of what he and Buchholz claim is a strong appreciation for PR among the company's C-suite executives. This is helpful, he says, especially when it comes time for a product launch. "I'm there at the beginning," Shane says. "It's very helpful for me to have a seat at the table because I can begin strategizing and thinking with my team from the very start about how to maximize that press value. We'll work on everything from coordinating the timing of the actual product launch that makes sense from a PR point of view, right through any engineering aspects." This comes through in strategy sessions. "When David says these are our goals and something we really need to make happen, it wasn't something that the PR group was making in a vacuum," says Sallie Olmsted, EVP of Rogers & Cowan Convergence Group, which has worked frequently with Comcast over the past year. "It was something coming right from the division chief's mouth." Although the company maintains ties with numerous PR firms, Comcast, and in particular its Eastern division, has relied on them less over the years as it beefed up its in-house PR function. Now Shane relies on agencies such as Rogers & Cowan for projects, like last fall's celebrity-studded launch of video on demand in the Philadelphia market. Picking up AT&T Broadband - and adding 13 million subscribers and leading to 2,000 layoffs - resulted in some changes in the way the company's communications are carried out, Shane says. "It was a different corporate culture," he explains. "From a communications standpoint, we did less than AT&T, but from a proactive media relations standpoint, we did more. One thing we did is take in the employee relations part, and the company as a whole has a stronger employee relations focus as a result of the AT&T acquisition." What hasn't changed is Shane's emphasis on the service component of the work, leading him to compare the culture of his corporate communications department to that of an agency. "It's easy when you go to a corporation and you've worked there for a while to fall into a trap of just dealing with the day-to-day bureaucracy of a large company," says Shane, who spent a few years on the agency side of the business after a career at CBS News. "It's important not to get wrapped up in that, and to make sure your team is just as responsive as an agency that's hungry to sign that $5,000-a-month client." ----- PR contacts Vice president David Shane Director, PA/DE Nissa O'Mara Director, NJ Jeff Alexander Director, New England Jennifer Khoury Director, CN8 Leslie Gross Manager Rob Wilson Specialist Marc Goodman Publicist, CN8 Robin Moleux Publicist, CN8 Laura Brubaker Coordinator Lauren Ceradini Administrative assistant Debi West

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