PROFILE: Sugerman's passion lies in taking on tough issues

Steve Sugerman, founder of Sugerman Communications Group, draws on his political and public affairs backgrounds to launch strategies that help him go to battle for his clients.

Steve Sugerman, founder of Sugerman Communications Group, draws on his political and public affairs backgrounds to launch strategies that help him go to battle for his clients.

Look behind some of Los Angeles' most contentious public affairs debates and you're likely to find Steve Sugerman entrenched in the fight. The fifth-generation LA native has been a fixture on the local PR scene for more than 15 years, but it's his public affairs work that has brought him into the spotlight most often and that is at the heart of his passion for the profession. "I'm fascinated by the convergence of business media and politics," he says. That proclivity has guided him through stints at some of the major agencies, and it eventually prompted him to open his own shop, Sugerman Communications Group, in 2001. The boutique firm has quickly carved out a niche as a strategy-savvy operation with no fear of tough issues. "We have jumped into some very significant projects," says Sugerman. "In two years, we've done some very serious work for very serious clients." The first of those clients also proved to be one of the fledgling firm's most demanding assignments. The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which manages labor at ports in California, sought Sugerman's help in crafting strategy and communications during contentious and highly watched negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. That debate escalated into an organized labor slowdown and 10-day closure of the ports, putting the PMA and Sugerman under a fierce press spotlight as the delivery of goods was impacted across the county. "That was six months into our new company," recalls Sugerman. "At the peak of that, we handled 350 media calls in one day." That kind of intensity, however, is welcomed by Sugerman, who says his firm's strength is in its tight communications and ability to react quickly. "We're a company that doesn't have any walls," he says, literally describing an office space with an open floor plan. "It's almost like a war room at all times." That siege mentality might be one of the keys to Sugerman's success. When you look at the agency's other clients, it's a laundry list of organizations facing tough battles in the public affairs space. Recently, he has been aiding the city of Beverly Hills as it handles high-profile class action lawsuits filed by attorney Ed Masry and Erin Brockovich, charging that oil drilling on the local high school campus has led to increased cancer risks among students and alumni. Media and other constituents have closely watched the situation, and Sugerman's team has been charged with handling everything from rebutting the opposing side's science to responding to negative editorials. The agency is also handling public affairs for a highly controversial mixed-use land development project called Playa Vista that has slogged through years of delays and poor public perception. Built on wetlands that some feel should be protected, the area is a lightening rod of environmental and land-use debates. Sugerman also represents the American Association of Health Plans, which is trying to make better connections in Hollywood to influence the way that the managed-care industry is portrayed in entertainment after years of being cast as the bad guy. While those clients all represent thorny trials, Sugerman says the hardest part of running his own shop is in the daily details - like outfitting offices with basic equipment and supplies. "When you're in a large company, like Fleishman-Hillard, you never talk about where you're going to get your computers from," he points out. "I found that to be a bit of a challenge. The things I never thought about weren't there, so there I was at the Computer Palace in West LA ordering computers." Before the entrepreneurial bug hit, Sugerman worked in both the public and private sector. He began his PR career in the LA office of Hill & Knowlton after completing the Coro Foundation fellows program in public affairs, a post-graduate curriculum that gives participants the chance to work in a variety of public affairs sectors. "I worked on every kind of business at H&K and learned the basic fundamentals of the business," he says of his first agency job. Sugerman stayed at H&K for seven years, but after making connections in the political world, he was asked to join Richard Riordan in his first term as mayor of LA in 1994. Sugerman became deputy mayor, and handled "overall communications, outreach to the business sector, and international trade activities," he says. While the experience was rewarding, it was also hectic. "One would be hard pressed to spend a full career doing that and survive," he says of life at city hall. "All of us in the administration felt that we sprinted the entire time we were there. The mayor has a lot of media following him every day. They are always in the building, knocking on your door. You're living it 24-7." Despite the heavy workload, Sugerman says that there are perks to being on the inside. "On the private side, you are trying to influence policy outcomes or raise awareness for issues," he explains. "When you are in government, you have so much opportunity to do that quickly. There are a wide variety of issues you are confronted with on a daily basis. By being in government, however, you have more of an ability to impact outcomes." Sugerman left public service after Riordan's first term to join Fleishman and run its Southern California public affairs practice. In that role, he handled clients in industries such as energy, real estate, tourism, international trade, and transportation. It was after that experience that he decided it was time for him to try his own business. "I woke up one day and realized that the idea of running my own firm was very interesting to me," Sugerman explains. "I'm in my late 30s, so I thought, 'This is the time.' I'm enjoying myself a lot right now." Steve Sugerman 1987-1994 Hill & Knowlton. Started as AAE in 1987; promoted all the way up to VP 1994-1997 Deputy mayor to Richard Riordan 1997-2001 Fleishman-Hillard, SVP, partner, director of the LA public affairs group 2001-present Sugerman Communications Group, president and founder

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