As the business faces unprecedented change, the faces of the spokesmen who tell media's corporate story are changing, too
You can’t pin down the spinmeisters.
The communications chiefs charged with keeping the corporate story straight at media conglomerates are flip-flopping jobs like at no other time in the past decade.
The latest stunner: Adam Miller (right), widely respected as a masterful corporate PR strategist at Abernathy MacGregor, last weekend became executive vice president of corporate affairs at NBC Universal, responsible for the worldwide packaging of Comcast’s newly-acquired content empire.
He approximately replaces Allison Gollust, who was the corporate spokeswoman for Jeff Zucker, the outgoing CEO of NBC Universal. What Miller's arrival means for the well-regarded Rebecca Marks, who runs the sprawling publicity machine at NBC, remains to be seen.
The changes began in November 2009 when after 10 years at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Gary Ginsberg (left) exited amid speculation that Murdoch’s London-based son and heir apparent, James, wanted greater control over the corporate messaging and Ginsberg balked.
Teri Everett (left), No. 16 on PRWeek's Power List, formally succeeded Ginsberg.
Last April, Ginsberg landed at Time Warner, succeeding Edward Adler, who decided to depart after roughly two decades, spanning the tenures of three CEOs and endless dysfunction. Adler has started his own consultancy at Medialink.
Meanwhile, at Sony Corp. of America, communications chief Ann Morfogen (below right) recently retired after 16 years of grueling New York-to-Tokyo flights as a top adviser to Sony Corp. CEO Howard Stringer. No successor was named, leaving her chief deputies–Mack Araki, a Sony veteran, and Sandy Genelius, who arrived at Sony in 2008 after 20 years at CBS News–to stand in.
Next week, Jonathan Friedland, Disney's No. 2 corporate communications exec under Zenia Mucha, moves to the increasingly competitive Netflix as vice president of global corporate communications, replacing the retiring Ken Ross. No word yet on who his replacement will be.
Only Viacom remains untouched. There, Carl Folta continues to hang in after 17 years in the oh-no-he-didn't role of speaking for the irrepressible chairman and controlling shareholder, Sumner Redstone. (And Paramount's Brad Grey has done away with an in-house corporate flack entirely, handing over communications to Steven Rubenstein in New York, to the frustration of many journalists.)
Representing the cantankerous and unpredictable Redstone requires the skill of a veteran. You can credit Folta with the “Content is King” narrative that Redstone has now peddled for ages. It rings loudly true now at Viacom, with its resurgent powerhouse flagship MTV, despite the company's greatly reduced size since Folta first started.
While the changes each occurred for discrete reasons, the communications bosses face a common challenge: spinning a corporate narrative in which an "old" media giant is repositioned for today's vertigo-inducing media markets, business models and new platforms.
Each company has “to tamp down fear that our business models are mortally challenged,” one top media communications boss told TheWrap.
"Google and Apple are making the money, having the growth. Those are the dynamic companies right now," said another top media communications executive.
Characteristically, none would comment for the record.
What’s more, the narratives must be conveyed to multiple audiences – from shareholders to Washington policy makers to business partners – and spinmeisters now have to master a proliferating assortment of communications platforms, from social-media outlets like Twitter and LinkedIn to blogs to traditional media.
At Time Warner, for example, over two decades the longtime corp comm executive Edward Adler had spun an ever-changing series of corporate narratives, each necessary for its time: "information superhighway,” “world’s largest media company” and — inspired by the ill-fate AOL Time Warner combo — "world's first Internet-Age media and communication's company."
The narrative crafted by Gary Ginsberg (left) is more in line with the reconfigured Time Warner, which has spun off cable and AOL to become a pure-play content giant, with television programming (CNN, TNT, HBO and TBS), the Time Inc. magazine publishing empire and Warner Bros. studio.
So much change may not be a good thing. Observed one veteran executive: “It’s not good to take out the institutional memory. I’m not sure it was good for NewsCorp and I'm not sure it was good for Time Warner."
Now it’s a rebranding story, largely centered around the idea that content is the ubiquitous king in the digital era — for example, TV Everywhere — and that CEO Jeff Bewkes is the dynamic new leader for the industry's new day.
Over at Sony, with the succession clock now ticking down on Howard Stringer’s tenure, stand-ins Genelius and Araki will face an increasingly daunting challenge to spin any narrative that resonates more than the question of who will be Sony’s next CEO.
(And fend off questions as to whether Sony intends to sell its content assets after Stringer leaves, as the scuttlebutt goes.)
Most likely, they will continue to press the digital convergence narrative the consumer electronics giant married to a Hollywood studio and the No. 2 music company.
And at Netflix, the often-abrasive Friedland arrives just as the streaming-video service is seen increasingly as a rival to cable-TV giants and troubling for Hollywood – all the makings perhaps for a fascinating communications war.
But CEO James Abernathy of Abernathy MacGregor enthusiastically vouches for NBC Universal-bound Miller, even though the latter dashed his dream of having the young man succeed him as CEO. “He’s one of the best executives I’ve run into in my long career,” Abernathy said. “That’s why Comcast and many other companies wanted him."
During Miller’s 15-year stint at the agency, he pulled all-nighters so regularly, freshening himself up at the office in the mornings, that his colleagues mounted a plaque that read, “The Adam Miller Memorial Shower.”
So why give it all up to spin the corporate story of a giant cable company’s subsidiary?
Without the CEO title, Miller already had been running the agency day-to-day more or less for the last several years, while also advising a cross-section of media’s corporate executive hierarchy, including Yahoo’s, Viacom’s and Steve Rattner, the Wall Street media banker, private equity investor and uber Democratic Party fundraiser.
In 12 years of counseling Comcast, he became a de facto member of the inner circle, impressing CEO Brian Roberts and President Steve Burke, who also now is NBCU’s CEO. Miller synchronizes with D'Arcy Rudnay, communications boss of the cable giant, which is being recast as a tech dynamo in digital communications and entertainment.
So Miller’s jump to NBCU boiled down to an irresistible offer. He occupies a highly compensated and influential role that will extend beyond mere corporate storyteller.
We'll see if media's newly installed spinmeisters come up with bestsellers–or cajole us into believing that they have.
Sharon Waxman contributed to this story