Winner: Russell Howard, SVP, Communications, National Geographic Channel

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Not one to toot his own horn, understated Russell Howard lets his record speak for him. It’s quite a record. In 2008, the NGC PR team grabbed CTAM’s Gold Mark award for Best PR Campaign in cable, for the 3rd consecutive year. It also took all the Silver awards and the Top of the Mark honor, the first time a PR campaign received that trophy, Not bad for a relatively small team. Its edge may be Howard’s knowledge of the brand. We asked the Channel’s 13th employee how he and his team do it.

CableFAX: The Magazine: NGC has won numerous PR accolades and saw prime-time live ratings grow for the sixth year in a row, yet your staff is smaller than most other networks. What’s your secret?

Russell Howard: There’s no one secret. I can’t overstate the advantages of having an exceptionally strong brand and exceptionally compelling content. Every member of the team is encouraged to develop their talents and empowered to contribute toward our common goals. Also, one of the major keys to the caliber of our results is the support of senior management and, especially, the programming department.

CFTM: As a member of the senior executive team, you’re often called upon in areas outside the typical PR exec’s domain. How do you balance day-to-day with bigger-picture thinking?

RH: This is where an exceptionally strong team could not be more critical. I have total faith in them to execute literally dozens of simultaneous projects, which gives me the freedom to divide my attention.

CFTM: We understand you are also the go-to guy for crisis management. How do you remain calm under pressure?

RH: Calm, of course, is a relative term. But in general, what’s most effective in a crisis is to focus on the specifics of the context, address them head on, then strategically determine the outcome you want to achieve and how best to get there. While sometimes a sense of urgency is essential, it’s counterproductive to add accelerant to what is almost always a pressurized situation.

CFTM: Among the many campaigns you spearheaded in 2008, which was your personal favorite? (We’re a little partial to the Stonehenge Decoded campaign with Christopher Guest as legendary faux rocker Nigel Tufnel discussing the legendary rock formation.)

RH: I loved the unexpected creative twist of the Nigel-Stonehenge campaign, which allowed us to tap into a counterculture icon to promote a major scientific discovery, as well as the adrenaline-infused live Jet Man campaign, with its inherent immediacy and uncertain outcome.

CFTM: What are the biggest challenges/opportunities you see for yourself and the network in 2009?

RH: Not surprisingly, everyone is grappling with the economic factors and their myriad of implications. Beyond the challenges for us as a network, the pressures on the larger media landscape present both a challenge and opportunity since its reducing the numbers of available outlets, reporters and editors while also elevating the importance of those still standing.

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Winner: Annie Howell, SVP, Communications & Public Affairs, Planet Green, Discovery Communications

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Veteran Discovery exec Howell has outdone herself in her newest role helming public relations for fledgling network Planet Green. Preceding the network launch in June, Howell and her team kept anticipation high by combining digital media, partnerships, guerrilla PR tactics, innovation and good old-fashioned media-relations elbow grease. Beginning in January 2008, the team employed executives, experts, celebrities and talent partnerships to keep the impending network top of mind among journalists. For Howell, Green clearly means "go."

CableFAX: The Magazine: How did launching Planet Green compare to your previous roles at Discovery?

Annie Howell: Launching Planet Green tapped into every communications skill I have learned during these past two decades — from leading a team and developing strategy to writing, pitching and executing events as well as working hand in glove with the GM, production and marketing to build the brand, develop content and put together a board of advisers and partnerships with a dozen NGOs.

CFTM: How difficult was it to break through such a crowded entertainment field?

AH: The choice to use known personalities and some homegrown talent in original shows created serious curiosity that helped us build buzz for the launch. This was especially true with the entertainment and mainstream press, which were vital in helping us reach that wider audience. The trick was to make sure the content remained balanced and accepted by the environmental media, too. We had a great moment when we collaborated with The New York Post to turn its [cover banner] green on June 4, the day the network premiered.

CFTM: Partnerships, such as those with the Nature Conservancy and Green Apple Festival, were an important component in the network’s launch. How important will they be in the future?

AH: Partnerships are an essential component to our success as a brand. We like to say that Planet Green is a brand with a mission, and the best way to extend our reach to audiences who care about this issue is through the experts who are working on environmental sustainability every day and with those groups that align with our brand personality.

CFTM: How do you follow up such a successful launch?

AH: We keep going. The state of the environment and what we’re doing about it is more relevant today than it was even a year ago. With the new [presidential] administration’s directives and call to action on the environment, the growing impact of climate change globally and the struggling economy, it’s more important than ever that we use our platforms to inspire and encourage people to action.

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Honorable Mentions:

Jim Weiss VP, Public Relations & Public Affairs, Gospel Music Channel: Cable veteran Weiss lacks the big budgets he had at Rainbow and Turner, but his talent is shining through at indie net GMC. He’s done a lot of good at Gospel, including staging a major musical event at NCTA ’08.

Katina Arnold VP, Comm, Sales & Marketing, International & New Technolgies, ESPN: Arnold’s can-do attitude and smarts have made her Bristol’s go-to communicator both here and overseas. And with ESPN being heavily involved in new technology, Arnold’s in a key position.

Theano Apostolou SVP, Publicity, Talent Relations & Promotional Events, AMC: Admittedly, Apostolou had great series to work with, yet she took Breaking Bad and especially Mad Men and ran with them. Hard. Need anyone ask why she richly deserves props and her recent promotion to SVP?

Richard Licata EVP, Corporate Communications, Showtime Networks: Known as the "Emmy King" for his attention-grabbing campaigns, Licata’s work is credited with drawing major Hollywood talent to Showtime. His paperless Emmy campaign (voters get materials at a password-protected site) this year extends to mobile platforms.

Richard Ramlall SVP, Strategic External Affairs & Programming, RCN: Ramlall’s creativity stands and community service stand out, as he continues to involve RCN in numerous local and charitable activities. His philosophy is that a corporation is a good citizen only if it gives back to the community. Amen.

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