PRWEEK.COM Q&A: Chris Petrikin, William Morris Agency

PRWeek.com brings you inside the world of entertainment PR to speak with the head of corporate communications at one of Hollywood's leading talent agencies, the William Morris Agency (WMA). As senior vice president of corporate communications at WMA, and former executive editor of Inside and news editor at Variety, Chris Petrikin is a seasoned Hollywood insider.

PRWeek.com brings you inside the world of entertainment PR to speak with the head of corporate communications at one of Hollywood's leading talent agencies, the William Morris Agency (WMA). As senior vice president of corporate communications at WMA, and former executive editor of Inside and news editor at Variety, Chris Petrikin is a seasoned Hollywood insider.

Joining WMA in October 2002, Petrikin today is responsible for overseeing media relations and public affairs for the company's worldwide operations. Based in WMA's offices in Beverly Hills, Petrikin also facilitates the company's marketing, advertising, and special events strategies and activities. Petrikin brought to WMA nearly ten years of experience as an entertainment business journalist. He joined WMA from the Writers Guild of America, West, where he served as executive editor, publications. Prior to that, Petrikin worked as a freelance contributor to such media outlets as the Los Angeles Times, Premiere, Salon.com and National Public Radio.

The latest subject of the PRWeek.com Q&A, Petrikin fielded subscribers' questions on everything from managing the tricky transition from journalism to PR, to his opinion on Hollywood PR stereotypes and the recent media firestorm that swarmed Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ.

Q: Since you were previously a journalist, does this help you formulate the perfect pitch? -CC, New York

A: I can't tell you how to formulate the perfect pitch, though I can speak to this question in a broader sense. Luckily, I am in corporate communications and do not work on those kind of pitches per se. I am more involved with taking calls regarding clients we represent. Still, my current duties, and especially my prior experience, has prepared me for knowing how reporters think. When dealing with journalists, you need to have the right touch. You need to know what will be a hard sell, what the journalist may ask in follow-up, what approaches will annoy them, and what information could help them tremendously. I've had much more experience as a reporter than a publicist, but I understand both sides of the relationship. And, understand that this is a narrowly defined industry where all of the reporters generally know each other.

Q: What recommendations do you have for new university graduates looking for a first job in public relations? -PA, Anchorage, AK

A: I strongly advise anyone planning to enter the PR profession to first go to a PR agency and try to get his or her foot in the door. Work for a few years. Absorb as much as you can and get a good overview. When it comes to this particular segment of the industry - and this is only my personal perspective, because I tend to like the corporate communications aspect, as opposed to the publicity function - but if I was coming out of college, I would try to get a job as an assistant at a studio. This is usually the level any college grad would enter the job market anyway, but by actually embedding yourself, you get a real sense of what the company actually does. This will give you a very practical understanding of not only how productions are made, but how they are marketed and sold. It's a really different skill set that can help you immensely down the road.

Q: What was the most difficult aspect of PR that you encountered when switching professions? -EM, Chadds Ford, PA

A: First of all, before I even committed to the position, I personally needed to assure myself 100% that I wanted to leave journalism. Once I did resolve that with myself, the biggest challenge lay in entering an industry I had covered as a journalist for so many years and now having to deal with so many reporters, friends, and former colleagues. It was awkward at first, when I assumed my new role. My training for this job was actually on the other side, and my approach is very instinctual. My major challenge was reconciling the fact that I was no longer a reporter. Luckily, I joined a company that I actually liked and respected. Coming in, I knew it well and knew its strengths. So, it was not hard at all to talk about the company, and not as difficult as I thought to call former colleagues. Personally, and I have my own bias, I think PR people and reporters are very smart people, and very alike in the sense that they both have to manage many responsibilities simultaneously. I think journalists and PR professionals are very valuable commodities, and most would be successful in most other industries. Obviously, journalists are more cerebral, but that is because so much of the job is inside of your head.

Q: What is the most common misconception about entertainment PR among those outside the industry? -SA, Houston, TX

A: Unfortunately, Hollywood PR has a history of not being portrayed well, so much so that even our own product doesn't portray the Hollywood PR industry in a flattering light, so the distaste has been institutionalized. Essentially, there are a lot of people who enter entertainment PR to be near celebrities, but that is by no means the majority. Like any job, you have these kinds of people, and perhaps a larger percentage, because, after all, it is Hollywood. But there is a misconception that everyone is in it for the free graft, the swag you get by representing celebrities. But, that really is not the case. And I would argue it is even less of a factor today than in the past, as all the major companies are owned by multinational corporations and people have to take themselves and their jobs very seriously if they want to succeed.

Q: We increasingly hear reports of agencies such as WMA being approached by organizations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to integrate social messages into entertainment products. What makes such an endeavor succeed or fail? Are you seeing a rise in this kind of collaboration? -ET, New York

A: We actually have a whole division called William Morris Consulting that consults corporations on integrated marketing strategies, such as new ways to advertise products without being intrusive. For instance, recently we worked with the US Treasury Department when they were introducing the new $20 bill. The challenge was that they were unveiling a unit of currency that everyone has to use, and I mean everyone, like millions of cashiers around the world. Recent studies show that the US $20 bill is the most frequently used unit of currency in the world. The bill does look much different from the previous $20, so if you were unaware of the new bill, you'd think it was counterfeit. We were able to get the new bill air time on an episode of CSI Miami in a counterfeit story line, among other aspects of the overall campaign. More organizations than ever before are approaching agencies to find ways of delivering integrated programs. We look at anyone comes to us as a client. We do not force relationships on our clients, but we do expose our clients to each other. It is all above-the-table interaction, and not grassroots campaigning.

Q: Follow up: What about working in the way described above with consumer products? Are you seeing a rise in marketing-driven entertainment? -ET, New York

A: Yes, we have seen a rise, but more importantly, it is getting more sophisticated. It's become less annoying, feeling less like a trick, so [the viewer doesn't] feel like they just sat through an infomercial, which is the way of the future. We've had success with General Motors, Anheuser-Busch, Saks Fifth Avenue, and have actually been working in this area for 10 years now. It's more about coming up with ways to be involved with the creative product, which sounds like business-school-speak, but it means getting the product or message through without having to hit them over the head. And, because of TiVo, the 30-second commercial may go by the wayside. One day, during a re-run episode of Friends, you'll just click on the shirt David Schwimmer is wearing to order it.

Q: Does the same pitch for a movie work in the South as it does in the Pacific Northwest? -TA, New York

A: I can't speak directly to that question, because I don't work at a studio. But yes, I do think national campaigns, just like international campaigns, are changed to appeal to the regional and local audience and not insult the culture of that target audience. Yes, there are some regional changes, simply because there are pitches and products that are an easier sell in the South and Midwest that would be much more difficult to sell in urban markets like New York and LA.

Q: Can you explain the popularity of Mel Gibson's movies? -GF, New York

A: I'm not going to take the bait here. Personally, I am a fan of Mr. Gibson's work, and Braveheart is actually one of my favorite movies. Let's face it, he's not a new kid on the block. He is one of the biggest, most dependable, box-office draws in Hollywood. He has got an infectious personality that appeals to both women and men. In terms of The Passion of the Christ, you have to respect his abilities and the risk he took. My theory is that if you look at the timeline of a normal marketing campaign and then you look at the timeline of the build-up and the fury, they would be in almost perfect synergy. I am not saying it was timed that way, or if it was artificial or insincere, because I do not know. But, I do know that the criticism helped tremendously at the box office and actually had the opposite effect to what some critics intended.

Q: I know that agencies are involved in Oscar campaigns. Is this part of your job and what exactly do you do for those campaigns? -AC, Los Angeles

A: I have to disagree. I don't think we are involved, for a very practical reason. We do take out ads for all of our clients, but only after they are nominated or win, but never in the run-up. The practical reason - and there very well may be some legal rule - is that we have too many clients. You simply can't show that sort of preferential treatment. So I would disagree. Agents too often get a bad stereotype, but they do have fiduciary responsibilities and professional taboos. That said, will the individual agents talk up their clients all over town? Sure, absolutely.

Q: Would you ever want to work in another type of entertainment PR, like at a studio or personal publicity? -AC, Los Angeles

A: I am happy where I am, and have a lot to accomplish. Remember, I have been here less than two years. I like handling the internal and external communications for a corporation. That is not to say that someday I may have my own company, with a partner whose strengths are complementary to mine. But, I really like the corporate aspect, as my background is in business reporting.

Q: I've heard that WMA has put a lot of effort into updating its image to be more hip. What kind of PR has gone into that, and why is that image important? -KO, New York

A: I am not aware of any specific campaign to portray the agency as more hip. We have a very long, proud heritage, as the oldest agency in Hollywood at 106 years old. We're not shying away from that. But, at the same time, we realize you can't rest on your laurels and past reputation. It's easy to call WMA old, because we are. But we've always been at forefront of the industry. I think in this day and age stability is very important. This is a hip company, but we don't have a blatant campaign advertising it. And, we are much younger today, through attrition and an influx of new blood. I would even argue that we are younger in some areas than any of our competitors. So, if youth is what you equate with hip, yes we are. You can call us an old hip company.

Q: So how have you grown in your new position?

A: While I was a business reporter covering publishing and film industries, I learned a lot. But the fun thing about this job is how much more I am exposed to from the inside. I now know so much more about the music business, the TV business, and so many other areas of the entertainment business. I was already up on them more than most - how these shows and productions come together - but I never realized how many aspects of the business I just was never really exposed to.

Q: Any closing comments?

A: If your readers don't like what I said, then I've been misquoted.

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