NEW YORK (MarketWatch) - Dan Abrams is in a hurry, as usual.
He is attempting to make the difficult jump to building and running a media consultant firm, Abrams Research, after spending more than a decade establishing himself in the television world, most prominently as the host of an MSNBC primetime show and, more recently, the boss of the cable news network.
I recently caught up with Abrams on a snowy morning in Manhattan. He was, typically, on the go, racing from one appointment to the next. He still appears on "Today," as its resident legal-issues expert, and had just finished doing a segment on the air.
He then spent about an hour with me, while wolfing down his breakfast, before rushing off to do another interview with a journalist. Time is probably his most precious commodity these days, as he works hard to build a company.
But few of Abrams' hours are spent in front of a camera these days. The former anchor has made the move to what journalists jokingly refer to as the "dark side," shifting from full-time news reporting to public relations. It's a common tale in the news business -- a journalist needs more than the paltry sum a struggling media company is willing to pay and goes to work defending the sources that he or she might have once vilified.
Abrams insists his situation is a little more complex. He's trying to use a novel approach by building a network of what he says are legions of freelance consultants -- most of them still linked to media work, in one way or another -- who can supply the firm's clients with advice instead of relying mostly on full-time employees. Abrams said the company has only four full-time employees, but is assisted by thousands of freelancers.
Closing the gap?
In a way, you could say Abrams is closing the gap between journalists and the public relations world by hiring those still linked to the business. The deteriorating economy has forced hundreds, possibly thousands, of qualified journalists out of their jobs over the past few years and into the freelance ranks.
Since his company still is in the start-up stage, he's trying to keep costs down as he builds his base of clients from the 15 he has now. But Abrams, 42, must prove himself to be a reliable employer in his own right. It could be tough to keep people in place if Abrams doesn't pay as much as freelancers might receive from their regular writing assignments.
I asked Abrams if he was concerned about entering a competitive industry, in which his top rivals have had fruitful relationships with corporate clients for years, if not decades. Abrams nodded in recognition, but hardly sounded awed by the competition.
"No one has quite done this," he said. In addition to creating a far-reaching consulting firm, he wants to create content on the Web and move into the potentially lucrative social-networking sphere.
"The community of expert media professionals is the key throughout all of the businesses I'm going to create," he said.
It was encouraging to Abrams to see how the media paid close attention to his company's recent survey on the views of business journalists about the state of the economy (full disclosure: I participated in it).
"It showed how quickly we could complete a really in-depth survey with a small staff," Abrams said. He received 102 responses, a useful sampling.
No deception training
I suggested that some skeptics might believe that Abrams, in his new role, would now occasionally be advising his corporate clients on how to deflect questions by reporters -- or, even worse.
"I'm not training businesspeople on how to deceive the media -- it's the opposite," he stressed. "It's a good thing to bring business and the media together. The public relations aspect is only a small part of the business (but) it seems to getting a lot of attention."
Launching a company is a new experience but it's not totall different than the move requires a related skill set for Abrams to when he was working in the television industry. "There is a similarity between getting high-profile guests and pitching clients," he pointed out with a knowing smile.
"When I'm trying to get a big-name guest, I'm trying to convince them that my show is the place to go. When I'm talking with a business, I'm doing something very similar.
"Dan has always been a great leader, be it of his show or of MSNBC," noted his friend David Zinczenko, the Rodale editor who presides over Men's Health and other titles. "When you couple that with a smart and novel business concept, it's hard to imagine how he doesn't hit this one out of the park."
Patience is a virtue
Actually, Abrams' biggest stumbling block may not wind up being the economy or the media industry -- it may be Dan Abrams himself.
"I tend to be an impatient person," he said with a grimace. "People don't tend to make decisions that cost them money, in an hour. Patience is the virtue I've had to focus on more than anything."
He then added, without a shred of apology: "I like to get things done."
I believe him. And I expect him to continue to work 24/7 to get his company firmly off the ground. But even with Abrams' stellar work ethic and business savvy, it will be tough for him to launch a consulting business in this difficult economic environment.
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By Jon Friedman