Not since Orson Welles frightened radio listeners in 1938 with The War of the Worlds had a work of fiction so unnerved the American public as 1999's The Blair Witch Project. When the independent film neared its release, the marketing efforts played coy as to whether the movie – which was based on “found” video shot by “three college students” that depicted a witch haunting the woods of a suburban Maryland town – was real or not. The film's marketing – carefully deceptive, but enticing – helped the film gross $140 million in the US.
“There is no doubt that the intersection of technology, entertainment, and consumer behavior has been the most dramatic change in the way we do business in entertainment PR,” says Tom Tardio, CEO of Rogers & Cowan, citing Blair Witch as a major turning point.
While it wasn't the first film that gained buzz online, Blair Witch did serve as a major milestone in how the Web would be utilized going forward. As the film's co-director Daniel Myrick told PRWeek in 2004, he couldn't recall one journalist who thought the movie was real.
“We did so many interviews and were pretty enthusiastic about how we made the movie,” he said at the time. While the journalists knew – and reported on how – the story was fake, the film's Web site and other fan sites only helped perpetuate the myth that it was real.
The Internet has also turned the next generation of consumers into a totally different audience. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the February 2005 launch of YouTube, which empowered consumers to create and share their own video content.
“Consumers are designing their own Nike shoes,” says Duncan Wardle, VP of global PR at the Walt Disney Co. “They're creating their own next-generation computer with Dell's IdeaStorm. They're creating new coffee products through mystarbucksidea.com. They're having a say of what products and services we develop at Disney Parks.”
Yet these influencers sometimes provide conflicting information. CBS brought back its cancelled, low-ratings show Jericho in 2007 after passionate fans sent thousands of pounds of peanuts (which were tangential to a plot line) to network headquarters, along with a letter-writing, telephone, and online campaign. It soon cancelled the show again because –while it had a passionate fan base – it lacked the critical mass required for a network program.
The entertainment industry was initially pilloried for its slow adaption to the digital environment. Illegal music download service Napster greatly challenged the recording industry, which responded with lawsuits and a slow rollout of its own legal download services. Film and television studios and distributors also watched YouTube attract millions of users before getting their own services off the ground.
Now, both the operations and communications sides of these companies are addressing the challenges and opportunities of the digital landscape. For one, companies can now truly interact directly with their customers.
This is especially prevalent in the music industry, explains Will Tanous, EVP and chief communications officer for Warner Music Group.
“In the past, our consumer interaction would be through a retailer, radio station, or video channel,” he says in an e-mail to PRWeek. “But with the advent of digital distribution and the proliferation of other new platforms, for the first time our companies have the opportunity to speak directly to consumers, in addition to accessing them through traditional outlets.”
Certainly, trade titles and individual film critics have lost some of their influence, due to bloggers posting their own reviews, insurgent Web sites like Aintitcoolnews.com and aggregation review sites like RottenTomatoes.com.
Other influencers that emerged in recent years are celebrity gossip Web sites like TMZ.com, which Jim Dowd, CEO of The Dowd Agency, calls a “game-changer,” and PerezHilton.com, which perpetuate a star-obsessed culture, increase the speed of the news cycle, and pose challenges for PR.
“You used to be able to control a client's image, and it's impossible to do anymore,” says Howard Bragman, chairman, founder, and CEO of Fifteen Minutes. “We're forced to live on our Blackberries now. We've had to catch up with [the changing news cycle], and we've had to do a really good job of explaining to our clients how it works.”
Communicators must remember that with the Web, anything can become mass, such as the previously small community comic-book convention Comic-Con, which is now a big draw, says Jeanine Liburd, EVP of communications and public affairs at BET Networks.
Sean Cassidy, president of DKC, says PR pros have been instrumental in aligning brands with stars.
“The use of celebrities and entertainment to market consumer products is something that has become a significant growth area,” he adds.
But, says Elizabeth Hillman, SVP of communications for the Discovery Channel, the interaction between a celebrity and a brand – whether it is a product or even a topic of global interest – has to be authentic.
“For [our projects], there is a huge asset in working with celebrities who are experienced and have a passion for an area and can help increase awareness,” she says.
1998 - Potter Magic
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone helped to remake the book publishing industry. By the series' last release in 2007, publishers had to go to great lengths to keep the book's ending out of would-be spoilers' hands
1999 - ‘The Blair Witch Project'
The Blair Witch Project raised the bar for studios' online marketing
1999 - The rise of the DVR
TiVo, which launched in 1999, helped set into motion the idea that consumers would control content in the 21st century
2004 - ‘Lost' debuts
The show's complicated storyline and online components extended the plot beyond the television set and showed studios could bridge the gap between traditional and emerging mediums
2005 - Launch of YouTube
Consumers were empowered to create, share, and watch content online. This led to the rise of the amateur video producer and the scrambling of traditional studios
to create a competing product
Five memorable entertainment companies
Resoundingly, PR pros cite HBO as an example of a company that consistently has great publicity for its shows and has built a well-known brand and reputation
The CW (Warner Bros. and CBS)
When The CW launched in 2007, as a joint venture between Warner Bros. and CBS, people praised the network for its marrying of tradition with new and edgy programming
Mark Burnett Productions
Behind such shows as Survivor and The Apprentice, Mark Burnett Productions is an example of the reality-show phenomenon that took over entertainment, introducing consumers to the idea that anyone can be famous
By 1998, MTV had already done its share of shaking up of the music industry, but it didn't stop there. While many lament it has mostly abandoned music videos, it continues to produce hits like Real World and The Hills
From its handling of the “Hot Coffee” crisis in 2005 to its massively successful launch of Grand Theft Auto IV, this company knows how to court just the right amount of controversy