PROFILE: Petrikin plays starring role at William Morris

Chris Petrikin may be new to PR, but as a veteran Hollywood reporter, he's equipped to handle the top comms job at William Morris. And having the agency's support certainly helps.

Chris Petrikin may be new to PR, but as a veteran Hollywood reporter, he's equipped to handle the top comms job at William Morris. And having the agency's support certainly helps.

"Baptism by lava." That's how Chris Petrikin, SVP of corporate communications at the William Morris Agency (WMA), describes the entertainment industry's current awards season. Though he could just as easily be summing up his first three months as the new PR honcho at the world's most-recognized talent agency. And Petrikin, 36, isn't just new to WMA - he's new to PR. This is the first communications job this former Hollywood journalist has ever held. Moreover, his predecessor was industry legend Don DeMesquita, so he has big shoes to fill. But he's hardly unequipped. "I may not have direct PR experience," says Petrikin, "but five years at Variety covering the agencies as one of my beats gave me daily exposure to publicists, executives, talent, and how they all worked together." Petrikin's insight into Tinseltown's unique symbioses is well-known. "Chris is one of the most well-wired people in Hollywood," says Michael Cipely, a former Petrikin colleague at and a current entertainment reporter for the LA Times. "The flow of chatter in this industry dictates everything, and Chris gets it." Petrikin admits he also got an attack of the nerves upon starting his new career. However, his angst was necessarily short-lived. Within his first week, WMA signed Ridley Scott, director of Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and many other blockbusters. This was a big acquisition, and the agency wanted the right coverage. "I viewed this as an immediate test," recalls Petrikin. "I suppose the board did, too. It was a straightforward, positive story, but it was still my first time running the show," adding, "Top brass' immediate willingness to defer to my judgment really helped. Their appreciation of media relations - and my unique knowledge and perspective of it - really smoothed the transition." But talent agencies only recently embraced the concept of in-house publicists. WMA hired Larry Bloustein as its first in the early '90s. He was followed by DeMesquita, then Petrikin. "Since the job is new," he explains, "there isn't a rigid template for how to do it. That's to my advantage." In addition to being the oldest such agency (WMA launched in 1898), it is also one of the most diverse, with offices in Beverly Hills (where Petrikin is based), New York, Nashville, and London. In April, WMA plans to open a Miami office to better serve Spanish-speaking and bilingual clients. It is also broadening its corporate-consulting arm, with eBay, General Motors, and Maxim magazine already on-board. It's those facets and more that keep Petrikin busy. "Many perceive me as an adjunct personal publicist for WMA clients," he says. "Frankly, this role did serve mostly as a concierge, where you'd get tickets for shows and the like. But as this agency has gotten more sophisticated and multinational, communications is my main concern. That, and protecting the brand." And WMA actually is a brand. Its longevity and numerous offices play into that, as does the company's widely recognized cross-hatch logo - four X's, representing a W superimposed on an M. "With every request to use our name, I must determine how our brand is impacted. When I protect the brand, I protect our clients," Petrikin says. His appreciation for the WMA brand was cemented rather innocently. "When I told my Midwestern parents I was going to William Morris, they knew exactly what it was. As a brand, that's the kind of recognition you want." Though Petrikin himself long knew of WMA's attributes, there are many aspects even he, a long-time entertainment beat reporter, didn't foresee. The public generally views agents as greedy. Petrikin knew otherwise, but was "was pretty surprised at how involved WMA is in creating and reshaping what's seen on TV, on the big screen, and in books. ['Literary agency' is proudly emblazoned on WMA's shingle]. What's more, agents stay with projects much longer than I anticipated." So throw away that image of agents as portrayed by Kevin Spacey in Swimming with Sharks. "He actually was a studio head, not an agent," Petrikin correctly notes, "but that stereotype is an albatross to everyone in our business." Though Petrikin is genuinely pleased so far, he still has the writing itch. He looks admiringly at Gil Schwartz, CBS Television's EVP of communications, who pens columns under the pseudonym Stanley Bing for magazines like Fortune. (Click here to see the June 24, 2002 profile of Schwartz.) "I really respect that," says Petrikin. "He seems to do both jobs well, and neither impinges on the other. I can see myself doing that down the road." Crossing over from the "other side" has certainly opened Petrikin's eyes, and not everything he's seen has been pleasant. Recently, he and a competing agency contacted the press regarding some high-level in-house promotions. "We both got good coverage," recalls Petrikin. "However, one reporter called to say, 'While you only called to thank me, the other agency sent me a basket with brownies and muffins. Those guys really know media relations.' I'd have never made a call like that as a reporter. It left a bad taste in my mouth." Fortunately, such incidents have been rare thus far. In fact, the tale of this ex-journalist turned PR pro has the makings of a good story. And Petrikin would be more than happy to write it. ----- Chris Petrikin October 2002-present SVP, corporate communications, William Morris Agency 2001-2002 Freelance writer/editor for outlets like the LA Times and Consulted for the Writers Guild of America 1999-2001 Film editor/executive editor, Inside magazine and 1994-1999 News editor and film reporter, Variety/Daily Variety (Los Angeles) 1993-1994 Deputy editor, POZ magazine (NYC) 1991-1993 Information and marketing specialist, Preferred Healthcare (Irvine, CA)

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