When Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray on September 4 while filming Ocean's Deadliest, Discovery Networks was inundated with media attention. The "Crocodile Hunter" had worked with the company for a decade and helped launch Animal Planet.
Over the years, Annie Howell, SVP of communications at Discovery Networks, forged a close bond with the Irwin family. Amid personal grief, she had to lead Discovery through the tragedy.
"It was the most intense thing I've had to work on," Howell says. "I got the call at 1:30am. By 2am, I had it confirmed, got dressed, and came into the office. I took 50 or 60 media calls the first day. He was the first personality to put us on the map. He had worldwide resonance. [There was an] outpouring of sadness from fans around the globe, not to mention the media attention. Several reporters said they haven't seen anything like it since [Princess] Diana's death."
Of Irwin's loss, Catherine Frymark, VP of communications at Discovery Networks US, says, "Annie spoke from the heart, but her strategic leadership led us through the largest crisis this company has known. Her history and relationship [with Irwin] and her expertise helped the whole team through it. Her passion and leadership came to bear perfectly."
Howell is the number two across the US network divisions and communications. She has vast responsibilities, including Animal Planet, Travel Channel, Discovery Health, Discovery Kids, all awards and festivals, Discovery films, title sponsorship of the pro cycling team, and global education partnerships. Issues and crisis management is also a big part of the job.
Jerry Johnson, EVP of strategic planning at Brodeur, has known Howell for close to 20 years. "She's really bright and [will] outwork just about anybody," he says. "She is a very kind, genuine, honorable, straight-up person. She's terrific at mobilizing teams and [has] a real gift [for management]."
Frymark calls Howell the "consummate mentor and teacher," who is also fun to work with. "She's a strong, thoughtful leader [who] nurtures staff," he notes.
Media attention around Irwin is sporadic now. "Occasionally there is a rumor that Bindi [Irwin's 8-year-old daughter] is coming to the US, and everyone wants her," says Howell. "One rumor will mean 20 calls from CNN, Today, Ellen. But it's easier than the first week."
Focus is now on this month's airing of an Irwin tribute and Ocean's Deadliest, the show he was filming when he died. Other TV efforts include Planet Earth, an extension of the popular Blue Planet series; current affairs productions with Ted Koppel; and two animal-advocacy initiatives. Howell is also working on new enterprise businesses, such as for Animal Planet, which recently acquired petfinder. com and Pets Incredible.
Howell started at Discovery in 1999, after 14 years of agency life. She helped launch Discovery Health Channel and discoveryhealth.com. The next year, she was promoted to head up communications. She grew the team from about 22 to 45 people.
"It was a huge challenge and a huge growth opportunity," she says. "I'm a firm believer that you can learn from people above you, below you, and beside you. I came in without a single minute of TV experience. The younger people taught me the ropes."
Howell is challenged by the breadth and diversity of her responsibility, but it's also what she thrives on. There's a lot of travel and long hours, yet Discovery honors staffers and work-life balance.
"We work around the clock, but we have flexibility to balance our lives," she says. "I've never missed one of my children's events - ever. I've taken them on business trips. Our CEO [is] a huge advocate of family first. It's the hardest, but best job I've ever had."
SVP of communications, Discovery Networks
VP of communications, Discovery Networks, US
Director of communications, Discovery Health Channel
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