Kathryn Falk, VP of Government and Public Affairs, Cox Communications
Vanguard Award for Young Leadership
As VP of government and public affairs for Cox Communications in Northern Virginia, Kathryn Falk spends her share of professional time under a microscope. The system has more than a quarter of a million subscribers in one of the most competitive markets in the country. More than that, customers include congressional leaders, media lobbyists and FCC commissioners; the hometown newspaper is The Washington Post.
“We just don't have a normal customer base. [Our subscribers are] more knowledgeable about public policy and technological issues,” says Falk. “They demand a higher level of customer service, products and service. We serve a community of high expectations.”
During her tenure at Cox, Falk oversaw one of the most difficult system upgrades in history—from an antiquated system to fiber—and it was completed early and in compliance.
“There were enormous expectations from our customers and our local governments,” she says. “We sat down with each of our local officials. We wanted them to be on board as our partners.”
Falk, an Arizona native, became politically involved when she got an internship on Capitol Hill for her state's then-Senator Dennis DeConcini while she was a senior at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia. After graduation, she became a staff assistant.
The experience gave Falk an understanding of the process in Congress and “how to get things done,” Falk says. “It made me more confident in my ability to walk up there and advocate a case.”
She soon gained a global perspective working for Sir Eldon Griffith, a Conservative member of Britain's Parliament during Margaret Thatcher's tenure as prime minister. That was an eye-opener. Falk learned that the U.S. public expects more access and service from its politicians. Where Sen. DeConcini's staff peaked at 45, Sir Griffith had a staff of just two.
Falk recalls, “England was not as focused on constituent services as we were here because constituents didn't ask for a lot of things.”
In the early 1990s, Falk became the assistant director for congressional and public affairs at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC). This was at a crucial time, when the telecom business was rapidly deregulating and Congress was beginning its total rewrite of the Communications Act of 1934. NARUC's role was to fight to ensure that state authority wasn't diminished by new federal legislation.
INTRO TO CABLE
Falk's introduction to cable began with the National Exchange Carrier Association, a group that has administered the FCC's access-charge plans for phone companies for more than 20 years. As VP of government relations and head of Washington operations from 1995 to '96, she was responsible for providing information to members of Congress and policymakers considering changes that would be made to the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
At NECA, Falk was impressed by the women who were her peers, many of whom were moving into cable. She says now, “I think that the cable industry gives women more opportunities than many other similar industries. In my time at NECA, it was not very welcoming or interested in advancing women at all.”
She found a prime opportunity as president of the Virginia Cable and Telecommunication Association, from 1997 through 2002; there she engineered a turnaround of the image and financial status of the cable business in that state that ended up saving its cable operators tens of millions of dollars. Some of her sharpest moments involved fighting GTE, Verizon, AOL and other giants over open-access issues.
That experience got her ready for her current job at Cox. But Falk, now 40, says, “I had no idea before I worked for Cox how challenging it is to work for a cable operator.”
Her ability to champion a cause proved valuable when she led the fight against cable Internet regulation, particularly in Virginia, where Verizon challenges Cox's turf.
Meanwhile, another payoff of her hard work is that customer complaints at Cox's Northern Virginia outlet have dropped to their lowest point from a record high upon her arrival. This is a good thing because, as noted, customers around the Beltway wield the kind of power that could make a cable company miserable.
“I'm lucky because I have a fantastic team of people,” she says. “They're very seasoned.”
Falk, who is the immediate past president of the Washington/Baltimore chapter of Women In Cable Telecommunications (WICT), has also focused on Cox's position in community affairs. The company has donated $13 million in cash and in-kind contributions during the past two years in Northern Virginia.
Events like “Cox Connects Day” allow employees to see firsthand such things as a gang hangout directly across the street from a Boys and Girls club. The company stepped up with $3 million to build six new clubs in the area.
Seeing the often difficult choices that young people have to make, Falk offers this advice: “Take every opportunity to learn and increase the breadth of your learning of different subjects, because people that are smart and hard-working will always be identified for new opportunities.”