Some 22 years ago, late cable pioneer Glenn Jones stepped off an elevator in a DC office building wearing a fur coat, sunglasses perched atop his brightly colored head, and was ambushed by a woman armed with a camera crew and a barrage of questions about his planned launch of Mind Extension University. “What is Mind Extension University? Why would you call it that, it sounds like Jonestown and you’re just a madcap cable mogul,” the woman spouted.
That woman was Anne Cowan, who’d been hired by team Jones to help him prepare for an upcoming press tour. “They told me to be tough on him, so I thought why not set up lights and a camera and ambush him when he got off the elevator with all these really horrible kinds of questions,” Cowan recalls. “He handled it pretty well.”
Two monumental outcomes resulted from the encounter. Jones, at Cowan’s behest, ditched the fur coat (though he did not change the name of MEU, another of her recommendations). And Cowan, who’d been working at a general communications agency, found her cable industry calling. “Right then I was hooked. It was just so much fun to be in the industry and work with people like that who were open, and facing really tough challenges,” she tells Cablefax in recounting the story. “I felt like I instantly connected with so many people in the business.”
Cowan has volumes of stories to share as she steps away after 20 years at CTAM, most recently in the role of chief communications officer. Her career has earned her a bevvy of monikers: “Master communicator.” “Chief connections officer.” “Nicest gal in cable.” And to many dear industry friends, simply “Annie.”
Perhaps what’s most unique about Cowan, as related by countless peers, is her ability to be so darn congenial while holding her own at any table, and often lead the proceedings.
“The local cable operator was not exactly a beloved individual in the community in the early ’90s, and while we had a number of great talking points to share, those of us on the front lines were not doing a particularly good job at handling that,” industry veteran Rob Stoddard says. “What I recall so vividly was watching Anne sitting down in rooms of 20 or 30 cable system operators, primarily general mangers, and helping them better understand how they could position our industry for success. Watching Anne train these individuals was a joy to behold.”
Cowan, who credits her background in theater as a key to her communications prowess, took off running in those heady days just after the passage of Cable Act of 1992 and before the Telecom Act of 1996, when burgeoning cable companies had no internal public relations teams of their own to fight off a growing stigma. After being hired by CATA (the Cable Telecommunications Assn.) and NCTA to handle public affairs training, she traveled to every state to train system GMs in talking with consumers, public officials and the press.
“There wasn’t a fundamental architecture there that allowed companies to ramp up to doing really strong public affairs; it took a while,” Cowan says. “The first big moment for me when I said, ‘Oh, we’re getting there,’ was when we started to launch some fabulous new experiences for consumers, and that was with HD, on-demand, TV Everywhere, and now voice-activated remote, and overlaying all this with this incredible broadband story.”
Steve Effros, who ran ACA Connects predecessor CATA and brought Cowan in as director of communications, says she’s very straightforward. “She says what she thinks, but in a way you can hear and listen to. She’s fun to be around, but you’re never at a loss for what Annie thinks. She’s really smart and very sensitive to the ways things are presented. When it comes to getting work done, this is a gal who gets it done. That’s her strength,” he says. “One of the legacies she leaves is teaching people how to explain what they are doing in an understandable manner to the general public.”
With her gaze continually trained on communicating cable truths, Cowan in recent years has overseen an evolving palette. She recently spearheaded a substantive effort around cord-cutting mitigation that saw CTAM launch a website whose goal is to deliver factual, authentic information during key decision-making moments.
“It’s been a truly life-changing project for me because in my gut for the last 20 years I’ve been saying, ‘We need to be honest, we need to be forthcoming, and say we understand what consumers are going through, we understand it can be confusing,’” she says. “And finally this is a real [example].”
As she looks back on the past two decades-plus, Cowan says, “It’s just been so fun. There are so many wonderful people to work with in this business, and the years just go poof. I started out helping executives build confidence and building positive stories for the industry to tell. And the rest is history.”
–Cathy Applefeld Olson