ANALYSIS: Client Profile - SAG must act quickly to restore itstarnished image

The Screen Actors Guild might represent the cream of the Hollywood

crop, but a closer look reveals a union that is stung by in-fighting and

uncertainty, and a PR staff whose already-tough job has gotten even

harder.



In Hollywood, the axiom "location, location, location" can make or break

a production budget or an executive's status. The Screen Actors Guild

(SAG), the nation's largest artists union representing 98,500 members,

is located next door to the La Brea Tar Pits, where large ponds of

primordial ooze trapped dinosaurs during the last ice age. Some might

say this was an apt metaphor for the union's dysfunctional

bureaucracy.



According to a cost-benefit analysis by management consulting firm

Towers Perrin commissioned by SAG in 1999, the union's operations are

mired in "organizational chaos" and require sweeping reforms.



The mirror the union asked to be held up to itself reflected a face not

ready for prime time. The report exacerbated existing internal

communications stresses at the time of its release in early 2000 - the

period during which the union was conducting a strike against the

advertising industry, the longest in SAG's history. Action, even public

comment, on the report was barred until the conclusion of the subsequent

contract negotiations with film studios and TV networks. But leaks (a

notorious problem for SAG) made public much of the report's

findings.



The net effect was a highly contentious, and publicly played-out union

election this past fall for which the Towers Perrin report was a major

issue. Ordinarily, these biennial elections make ink only in the trade

magazines with passing mentions in New York and LA papers. But when two

of America's favorite stars from the 1970s - Valerie Harper and Melissa

Gilbert - tossed their hats into the ring and began what looked like a

cat fight to rival MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch, news media of all

denominations carried the stories, even in the shadow of September

11.



SAG's shining light amid the darkness



The one area of union operations to receive a passing grade was its

communications department, although it was a rather left-handed

compliment. The Towers Perrin report stated, "SAG does not have a

knowledge management system for the dissemination of information of

strategic importance. Fortunately, SAG has a number of highly committed

staff members, elected leaders and members who work in a Herculean

manner to cope with these issues." In other words, when it comes to

getting the word out, the union's PR department has a super-fast

grapevine.



The praise came despite the union's skeletal communications staff.

Ilyanne Kichaven recently accepted a full-time staff position as

associate director of communications last month after consulting with

the union during its 1999 and 2000 contract negotiations. During this

time, she supported Greg Krizman, then the acting director of

communications, who had been a union PR staffer for five years. Krizman

left his position abruptly in November to attend family matters in his

home state of Ohio. His departure reduced the PR ranks to two

executives, an archivist, a website manager, and two administrative

support personnel. Krizman's vacated position is not yet filled.



The New York office, which represents nearly 30% of the union's

membership, no longer has on-site PR although it does have a consultant

to assist with its local newsletter. The union does not have an agency

to assist or manage its communications needs.



Kichaven's group reports to the newly created role of deputy national

director for policy and planning. Former Clinton administration legal

advisor Mark Steinberg accepted this position in early December. His

responsibilities include legal affairs, communications, and governmental

affairs. According to Kichaven, he will set strategy enacted by her

department.



Changes on the horizon



SAG is readying for a major restructuring according to the

recommendations of the Towers Perrin report. The largest criticism was

aimed at the union's bloated bureaucracy, including an ungainly

107-member board of directors which is prone to leaking union business

and gossip to the press.



"Very few people are empowered to speak for the union, but when you have

board members who speak directly to the press, and the press couches it

as guild position and policy, it makes it difficult for us to stay on

strategy," says Kichaven. It is hoped, however, that Steinberg's new

position will buffer that balancing act for Kichaven's team.



There are more storms brewing, however. Currently, the Guild is locked

into a stalemate with the Association of Talent Agents (ATA) over rules

that bar agencies from having a fiduciary relationship with production

and distribution companies, including ad agencies. Publicists have not

had this bar and many have merged with or been acquired by large

interests, such as Ogilvy & Mather's acquisition of Baker Winokur Ryder.

SAG says that's fine for publicists, but not for agents who could

ostensibly be negotiating with their owners or partners on behalf of

their actor-clients.



SAG feels that is an intractable conflict of interest. Agents say they

can't survive economically without such merger opportunities.



Kichaven hopes to execute another news blackout when these negotiations

hit the table if the same level of cooperation can be achieved with the

ATA's board and PR team that SAG experienced with The Alliance of Motion

Picture and Television Producers this year in their negotiations over

actors' salary and conditions.



The Guild is also working to address runaway production. In September,

it announced a PR campaign to inform its members about the global

enforcement of "Rule 1," which says that all SAG members must work under

SAG contracts whether they work inside or outside Tinseltown.



"We have many members who simply don't know that union contracts and

protections are available to them if they work in Toronto or Sydney,"

says Kichaven. The strategy currently underway is to have forums for

members in which high-profile union members like NYPD Blue star Esai

Morales speak on issues and answer questions.



Kichaven says her staff is currently looking for actors willing to be

profiled about their negative experiences working outside of union

contracts for stories to be pitched to the press. This tactic garnered

excellent coverage in The New York Times and several metro dailies

earlier this year when the union proffered the plight of the journeyman

actors during its contract negotiations with the networks and film

studios.



The greatest challenge before SAG's PR department will be managing SAG's

reputation. The union has been severely injured by its in-fighting,

which promises to escalate further with the proposed implementation of

the Towers Perrin recommendations, beginning with the slashing of the

board ranks from 107 to 62.



Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles Economic Development

Corporation, a private, not-for-profit industry watchdog, says that

SAG's handling of contract negotiations over the past two years has

created a de facto strike condition in the city that has persisted well

beyond the inking of the deals. "Advertising revenues are down

significantly, and business profits are under a lot of pressure, so

you're seeing very sluggish advertising sales," says Kyser. "The reality

series aren't doing well, but the networks and studios can't afford a

lot of new scripted series because they are very expensive. The industry

is in a Catch-22 situation."



While Kyser says SAG was "somewhat successful" in its negotiations for

its members, its mounting list of embarrassments has done damage. SAG

and its communications team has a lot of work to do to bolster its image

and relevance to secure the respect and commitment to Rule 1 and other

union demands. Without membership compliance, its collective bargaining

power now and in the future is seriously impaired.



"The message coming through is that it's a somewhat dysfunctional

entity," Kyser continues. "They have some major image concerns." And

image, in Hollywood, means everything.



The Screen Actors Guild



National executive director, CEO:



A. Robert Pisano



General counsel, deputy national director of policy & planning: Mark R.

Steinberg



Associate communications director, SAG spokesperson: Ilyanne Morden

Kichaven



Communications assistant: Karlyn Yngve



Communications administrator: Sherry John



Archivist: Valerie Yaros



New media coordinator (web site content): Steve Graham.



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