CORPORATE CASE STUDY: Hallmark Channel fervently greets its PR challenges

Realizing that name recognition alone isn't enough, the Hallmark Channel's PR staff combines enthusiasm and tenacity to keep building awareness - and ratings - for its cable network.

Realizing that name recognition alone isn't enough, the Hallmark Channel's PR staff combines enthusiasm and tenacity to keep building awareness - and ratings - for its cable network.

Hallmark is one of America's best-known brands. Consumers throughout the country and around the world easily recognize its greeting-card business and Gold Crown stores. It's little surprise then that when the company decided to rebrand Hallmark Entertainment's cable channel a few years ago, it switched from the obscure name of the Odyssey Network (which had its origins in religious programming) and instead relied on the goodwill of generations of card shoppers to be interested in the newly named Hallmark Channel. Two years into its revamped image, the network has substantially expanded both its reach on cable systems and its audience numbers. No small part of the credit goes to its PR and promotional efforts, which are handled in-house by a lean but effective team. "It's exhausting, but it is so exhilarating," says VP of corporate communications Elizabeth Hillman of working for what is essentially a new company. "You either have that adrenaline gene that you like to work on a start-up, or you don't. To say you multitask is an understatement." Moving beyond name recognition Hillman, who joined Hallmark in 2000 from National Geographic, is in charge of the five people who make up the corporate communications department. The network has both a corporate communications division and a PR division that support its programming. On the corporate side, the challenge has been highlighting the Hallmark name, while at the same time explaining the identity of the network as a source of family-friendly entertainment aimed at adult audiences. "The plus and the minus [of the Hallmark name] are sometimes the same," says Hillman of her work. "The plus is that Hallmark is a world-renowned brand. The challenge is translating that into a 24-hour-a-day channel. Because we stand alone (without other entertainment assets), we don't have the kind of leverage other companies do." Despite the name value Hallmark has, the network has worked to shed any taint of sentimentality that the greeting-card business may inadvertently lend it, and instead highlights its high-quality original movies, as well as its executive team's strength, for the business press. "Our main goals are to increase awareness about Hallmark through b-to-b and business trade, print, electronic outlets covering distribution, ad sales, marketing, and overall business," explains Hillman. She says that goal is pursued in "various ways," from pitching profiles of executives, to placing them on trade-show panels, to taking part in industry events. Hillman's team is also currently handling a public affairs and education initiative about adoption and foster care that ties into the network's programming. The campaign features a traveling exhibit of celebrities' shoes from stars like Tom Hanks and Sarah Jessica Parker. The shoes will be auctioned off on eBay beginning on September 22 to raise money to buy "fundamentals" for kids in need, explains Hillman. The corporate communications department is also working on an upcoming education and literacy project that the network will debut next year. The programming PR division has just as much on its plate as its corporate counterpart. Headed by VP of network program publicity Pam Slay, who joined Hallmark from Warner Bros. International Television, the division also handles everything in-house with only seven people. "We've got about 100 years of experience between the four of us," says Slay of the core team that handles publicity. "Our sole function is to get out there and support the programming department, grow the ratings, and to make audiences more aware. We have the gray hair to prove it." Targeting a younger demographic Currently, one of Slay's goals is to help the network find a younger audience - always a big draw for advertisers. Using the network's "sexier and hipper" offerings such as the upcoming Mystery Woman starring Kellie Martin, "we're going out and looking for a lot more of those outlets that deal with 18- to 49-year-old audiences," she says. Slay is quick to point out that the Hallmark Channel creates a large percentage of the high-rating original programming available on cable TV. "It's really beneficial having Hallmark Entertainment for a parent company because they have produced eight out of the top 10 movies or miniseries during the last decade," she says. "Additionally, producers from that group who produce original movies for the Hallmark Channel have produced 20% - or five of the top 25 - original films produced this year. Only Lifetime ties that mark, and TBS, TNT, and USA all have fewer than five of the top 25." That quantity of programming gives Slay's team plenty to work with. One strategy that the network has developed is to tie in promotions with Hallmark stores and affiliates. "That's our form of vertical integration," says Hillman. "We really try to take it down to the local level." The publicity team also does more traditional press outreach, including junkets, but shies away from flashier tactics. "We don't do a lot of stunting," Slay says. Currently, the team is handling a media tour for actress Doris Roberts for an upcoming movie called A Time To Remember, which deals with Alzheimer's disease, and will debut at Thanksgiving. "I've never in my life worked with such an efficient group of people," says Dale Olson, Roberts' publicist. "On top of that, they are just nice about it. They are pleasant, easy, and accommodating. They bend over backwards to do the job efficiently and well, but at the same time they treat everybody as if they are the most important person to work with." Because of the theme and the cast of A Time To Remember, Slay says the movie is getting a strong reception from the media, including hits in Parade, The New York Times, and CBS' The Early Show. She credits her team with having the experience and tenacity to gain those kinds of high-profile hits. "We are a small unit for the amount of work we do and the level of aggression we have out in the marketplace," she says. "But we don't have sense enough to know it. We're constantly telling our friends at Lifetime that we have our sights set on where they are." PR's programming input Slay's team often has the opportunity to go beyond traditional publicity roles and give input into the creation of the programming itself, a rare perk that makes Hallmark unique in the entertainment world. "The producers actually come to the publicists and ask for our advice on casting," she says. "It's not often you find a publicity unit that gets a hand in casting, [or] that's invited over by the producers to see a cut of the movie before it's finalized to see if there are any concerns." Despite having so many different PR roles to handle, both Slay and Hillman say Hallmark is a fast-paced, but organized environment for PR. "PR by nature is pretty much on the fly," Hillman says. "A lot of it is intuition, experience, shooting from the hip, and being really strategic when you can. We find that we are often working strategically on long-term projects that we can foresee, as well as being innovative and reactive. We never know what is going to happen." ----- PR contacts VP, network program publicity Pam Slay VP, corporate communications/publicity Elizabeth Hillman Director Jocelyn Brandeis Manager Brandy Phillips Viewer services Nathalie McDonald Coordinator Rashida McCarley Manager, network program publicity Jill Lessard Manager, photos Francisco Ochoa Senior publicists Sheri Goldberg, Sheri Helmers, Maria Stasi Writing consultant Kathy O'Steen

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