Tales from Tinseltown: Hollywood publicists: they just don’t make ’em like they use to

For a diehard hack like myself, Daily Variety’s revelation on Sept. 7 that Viacom would merge with CBS was highly satisfying. A world exclusive for the paper, it proceeded to earn wall-to-wall coverage in every other outlet across the globe.

For a diehard hack like myself, Daily Variety’s revelation on Sept. 7 that Viacom would merge with CBS was highly satisfying. A world exclusive for the paper, it proceeded to earn wall-to-wall coverage in every other outlet across the globe.

For a diehard hack like myself, Daily Variety’s revelation on Sept.

7 that Viacom would merge with CBS was highly satisfying. A world

exclusive for the paper, it proceeded to earn wall-to-wall coverage in

every other outlet across the globe.



It reminded me, unfortunately, how impossible it is for newspapers to

get such scoops in today’s Hollywood, where PR execs painstakingly

control the flow of information to the media like a drip-feed. Oh, for

the days when we were free and strong, and broke a story of this

magnitude every week.



Nostalgia is a strong force in Hollywood. They don’t make ’em like they

used to, say the old-timers. Of course, they’re not just talking about

films; they also mean publicists.



A subject of continuous debate is whether the veteran talent handlers of

yesteryear were more effective than today’s MBA-toting,

cellphone-touting PR pros, who are more likely to present their clients

with set of market data than escort them to a photo shoot.



This shift in the nature of publicity over the last 30 years mirrors the

transformation of Hollywood itself - from a ragbag collection of

family-owned businesses to a group of dynamic media conglomerates worth

many billions of dollars. There are benefits and disadvantages to both

models.



The old-school publicists were an integral part of their companies’

operations, dealing directly with CEOs. They knew exactly what was going

on and routinely confirmed it to the press when asked. There was no

stock price to worry about back then. Publicists developed excellent

relationships with the talent, and acted as quasi-confessors to many of

their charges.



But the new generation couldn’t be more different. Bearing college

degrees in communications or market research (and frequently some

journalism experience), they have more respect for statistics than

hunches. They see themselves as the people who set the agenda for the

media, yet unlike their forebears, they are tiny cogs in a giant

corporate machine.



And while what they say or don’t say to the press matters a great deal,

they have little influence over their bosses. Only execs such as

DreamWorks’ Marvin Levy, who has handled Steven Spielberg for years, are

an exception to this rule.



To put it simply, the majority of today’s corporate PR pros have no idea

what’s going on. They are the mouthpieces of enormous media

conglomerates, where decision-making takes place a long way from the

publicity department.



So while today’s publicists are hi-tech, professional, well-qualified

and accomplished, they are still inferior to older ones in one key

respect: knowledge.



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