Public Affairs: Everybody’s Business

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This week, more than 400 professionals from around the country are arriving in Washington, D.C., for the 20th annual conference of the Cable Television Public Affairs Association.

This year, cable television is at a crossroads. If it actively pursues and helps create a fair, open set of ground rules for a competitive industry that soon will include large telephone companies as well as significant satellite players, it can and should remain the dominant U.S. pay TV supplier. If it does not, it could lose ground against rivals expert at pursuing their interests with local, state and federal rulemakers.

That’s why this year’s conference is called “Cable at the Crossroads: Shaping Change in a Competitive World.”

And it’s not just a crossroads for operators or programmers. It’s a crossroads for public-affairs and public-relations professionals., who must be prepared, conversant and active, in shaping the world in which cable companies will operate.

Since the 19th Forum and this one, public-affairs road warriors have had little time to even pull over for rest stops. CTPAA members in Washington this week are coming off what you could easily call a hard-driving year.

They’ve had to navigate through an unrelenting series of competitive issues: the transition of broadcast signals to digital transmission; the question of pricing pay TV channels on an a la carte basis; how to — or whether to — maintain the Internet as a network open to all comers on an equal basis; state, local and even national cable-TV franchising; creating and marketing successful “triple-play” bundles of TV, phone and data services; the mergers of SBC Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and BellSouth Corp. into one company; Congressional reexamination of the ’96 Telecommunications Act; potential payments for retransmission of over-the-air TV stations’ content; parental controls over programming and the business and community effects of devastating hurricanes.

If there were any doubts about the importance of public affairs to the cable industry, these past months have confirmed that the need to aggressively battle for cable’s policy and business objectives is critical. And so is listening and responding to customers, policy makers and media.

Which is why the Forum this week, and CTPAA every week, matters. CTPAA educates and members about issues like these in comprehensive yet concise briefings known as CTPAAbriefs; offers news alerts every other week in an electronic newsletter, CPR Facts; provides reference materials like summaries of best practices; and learning opportunities, such the three-day annual graduate-level program put on through the CTPAA Public Affairs Institute, developed in partnership with The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. The Institute focuses top professionals on developing, delivering and managing the message that his or her cable company needs to have heard.

Cable may be at a crossroads, but we know which road to take, and proper execution of public-affairs programs provides the compass. It’s our business the phone companies are coming into. If it’s a level playing field, innovation and technology win, and regulation confers no competitor an advantage.

That means that public affairs is not just a role for a few hundred professionals in this industry. It’s everybody’s job.

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