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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Associate communications director, SAG spokesperson: Ilyanne Morden
Communications assistant: Karlyn Yngve
Communications administrator: Sherry John
Archivist: Valerie Yaros
New media coordinator (web site content): Steve Graham.