Entertainment Roundtable: Moments in the spotlight

Keith O'Brien and Kimberly Maul were in Los Angeles to discuss entertainment PR.

This year, PRWeek will visit eight cities where an industry close to that respective region will be discussed. For each event, leading PR pros from a variety of firms, companies, and other organizations will gather in a roundtable discussion about the issues affecting them and their peers. Keith O'Brien and Kimberly Maul were in Los Angeles to discuss entertainment PR.


Keith O'Brien (PRWeek): In the past couple of years there has been a lot of conversation about mass media and whether everything is niche now. Being in the role of positioning this content, do you feel like the way you're positioning the content and the way you're setting expectations is different from what it was 10 years ago?

Susan Arons (Rubenstein Communications): I think it is. You have to look at what your project is and see [if you] are you better off going out mass first and then trickling down to niche or start[ing] with niche and then grow[ing] out. You have to determine who your first- and second-tier audiences are. As an agency, we work with the client and talk about what the landscape is and then figure out what is going to work for them, which is different than managing expectations.

Susan Fleishman (Warner Bros.): I have to manage expectations all the time. I do corporate communications, so it's very different, I think, than publicity, or marketing and PR. If I don't manage the executives and their expectations, I'm sunk. We recently, as I think you all know, pushed back Harry Potter [and the Half-Blood Prince movie], and we had a word in the press release—it just goes to show you the power of words—where we said the Writers Guild Strike, it "severely" impacted the bottom line and was one of the reasons why we were moving the movie. The people in New York went nuts and wanted us to take out severely. It's like, "What do you mean it severely [impacted]? How bad is it going to be in '09 and what are you guys doing about it?" I just come at it from a different place. I'm perpetually managing [expectations].

Leticia Rhi Buckley (Music Center at the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County): From my perspective, as a nonprofit, cultural arts institution, we deal with a board of directors and we have a civic responsibility in the city, so I'm managing expectations every single day. I do a combination of communications, PR, and marketing and it just ties into on a regular basis having to [explain] "Why am I not on the cover of the Los Angeles Times? Why is the Wall Street Journal not interested in the opera?" For us particularly, with print at least, we see a dramatic change of how arts are covered and so the expectations have to be managed, otherwise none of us would be working.

David Stamper (Fleishman-Hillard): I agree. It comes down also to what is the business objective of whatever you are trying to do with the program. Is it wide publicity for a movie or is it moving units of a home video or an entertainment-related product? It goes down to drilling down in the new media landscape to what are the audiences that matter for you? In a mom audience, there are yoga moms, there are yogurt moms, there are lesbian moms. And each one have their own ways of receiving information that may be a lot more pertinent to them in shifting a unit and making a connection with them than the Today show.

Howard Bragman (Fifteen Minutes): The original question was mass. If you're lucky enough to get a client, say on Idol Gives Back, if you have an appropriate client, or somehow incorporated in the Super Bowl, that's a home run. Yet those may hit 30 million people, you get 10% of the population. You left 90% of the country not knowing what you're talking about and yet you think you think you've gotten this big thing. So, yes, mass is dead. But at the same time, viral can take something that is very small, and a lot of effort, [and turn it into] something very big and mass in its own way, by this sort of collection of niche. I don't think we need the traditional media quite the same way we did.

Chris Ender (CBS): We're talking a lot here about managing expectations internally. I think as an industry, and a lot of our businesses, we've done a very poor job of managing expectations externally. I don't think all of us have been aggressive enough in trying to reorganize what the press is thinking on what that definition of success is. In network television, for example, a network television rating is far less today than it was in 1988. Yet there are still reporters out there who define success based on the benchmarks then.

Bragman: Look at Gossip Girl and The Hills, which are huge successes by almost every measure except ratings.

Henri Bollinger (Henri Bollinger Associates): I found that what has changed is the media opportunities. The idea of expectations has been with us as long as I can remember, whether it's a client or a show or something that I'm working on, [they all] have their own expectations. I always found my job to adjust those expectations to what I believe can be delivered.

Heather Krug (Rogers & Cowan): We work with a lot of sport leagues and I think that is the same thing, from the TV side, ratings don't tell the entire story. What is success for a big event in sports? [It's the] same type of problem with expectations.

Bruce MacKenzie (MS&L): We represent a lot of brands and how they are going to live in the entertainment space. I find that often, when you sit down to have a dialogue, the first thing that comes out of the marketer's mouth is "I want to be on Oprah." Or "I want to be on the Today Show." Or "I want to be at the Super Bowl." But then the more you talk to them about their brand, it's not really want they want. What they really want is a dialogue with their consumer in a way that is going to make their consumer passionate about their brand and carry the message of their brand to a broader audience.

O'Brien (PRWeek): We were talking about where the audience has gone from traditional media. Are video games one place where consumers are spending more time?

Fleishman (Warner Bros.): We have a whole division that does video games and it's the largest segment of growth as far as we can tell.

Ender (CBS): My 16-year-old son never stops playing his Halo or his Tour of Duty…but he has this amazing ability to stop playing, then check his text messages, click over to ESPN SportsCenter and then go watch The Office on TiVo. It's more rapid-fire and that's why video games are so [popular]. It's the attention span.

O'Brien (PRWeek): Many of the panelists here and the clients they represent deal with things where there is a measurement behind it, like an X amount of millions of dollars opening weekend, or ratings. But the PR activities are working in parallel with the advertising that is going on. How can you measure the efficacy of the PR component of a marketing campaign in entertainment?

Alfredo Richard (Telemundo): It's interesting that you brought up the marketing parallels because I find myself more and more sort of overstepping, or feeling that there is a bigger grey area, when it comes to viral PR or viral marketing. It's not about getting the front page of that paper. It's about the top of the Google search. How do we write a press release so it gets on the top of the Google search while my search marketing team experts are pushing for the same thing? So, we're working very closely now, on that front.

Stamper (Fleishman): What we found in the last year or so is that before the client would only open the conversation with the advertising agencies. Now, they're coming to us to open the conversation. Marketers are realizing that advertising agencies, no matter what they say, still can't see beyond the 30-second and the 15-second spot. The PR people have always had to make a cake from crumbs. I think that bigger brands that are looking how to negotiate through the world of entertainment and celebrity and how that plays into marketing, are looking at PR people as being people who have a better perspective.

Krug (Rogers & Cowan): Rogers & Cowan is 50% celebrities [work], but we're also 50% corporate. Relating back to measurement, it's also understanding how celebrities work, especially working with corporate brands. You can do an event, and it can be a great event, but if you don't have the right celebrity, then your client is going to come back and say we weren't successful.

MacKenzie (MS&L): Brands want partnerships and they want it to be authentic. A decade ago, as long as you had someone with a big name, it didn't make any difference. And now that's just not going to work for you.

Stamper (Fleishman): The audience and the consumers are so much savvier about it. They see through it. We did a program where we brought Amgen and the Cancer Foundation together with a celebrity. We brought them together with Patrick Dempsey, who plays a doctor on [Grey's Anatomy] and his mom is a two-time cancer survivor. It was real and it worked and it was relevant to him and it was relevant to them, so it worked.

O'Brien (PRWeek): The realities of the new media environment allow for entertainment companies to go directly to the consumer. How have you helped foster this direct-to-consumer Web environment?

Albert Lopez (Ticketmaster): From the moment that Wendy Webb came over from Disney and I came over from Harrah's Entertainment, we made an immediate move into social media and Web 2.0 while still paying homage to traditional media outlets. We knew from the get-go that we needed to be part of the conversation and part of word-of-mouth marketing.

Buckley (Music Center at the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County):  [Direct-to-consumer] is crucial for us, in terms of the nonprofit and as part of the performing arts. For us, the social media components— MySpace, Facebook, and beyond—are crucial to what we're doing because I've got very little budget and I need people to be aware of what my product is. At the end of the day, [the shows and events are] what I'm selling, so it's crucial for us.

Lopez (Ticketmaster): Using social media, you actually need more media than you would in a traditional narrative news release, in which everybody sweats over every paragraph that ultimately isn't used by a journalist worth his salt. Why not give them the bullets they need, with the links to the content and all the multimedia you possibly can? And if they use it, they use it. If they don't, then I still have everybody else in the world that can get the information.

Richard (Telemundo): That's totally true. I had that happen two months ago because I started doing multi-media press releases. Then you realize that if it is picked up, it doesn't matter because immediately it is posted everywhere. Immediately, the way it is written will be searchable everywhere, it is linked everywhere. Ultimately, you get it to your target audience directly and you don't have to go through the traditional media at all.

Arons (Rubenstein): Live entertainment, actually, has been doing social media before it has been called social media, and Ticketmaster has been at the forefront. When I was at Madison Square Garden, we were connecting with the fans and blogging before it was actually called blogging. It was just consumers writing in and saying, "Here are my ideas." We do that now when we're selling tickets for Cirque de Soleil or the professional bull riders. You're connecting with cowboys in New York—who knew there were any?—and the [New York] Times isn't going to cover that. But we're selling tickets, and so we're connecting everyone and we're using all of those outlets.

MacKenzie (MS&L): There has been a lot of conversation of late that PR and marketing in the past was a monologue. You could throw your message at [consumers, they'd accept it and move on. From there it went to a dialogue, and now it is really a multilogue.

Fleishman (Warner Bros.): [With the] decision to move Harry Potter, [Warner Bros. Entertainment President and COO] Alan Horn's apology actually went out on fansites first and foremost because we were trying to reach them to not look… greedy.

Ender (CBS): The opportunity to take out that filter [also] enables you to seize back the news cycle a little bit with the filter. Barack Obama says, "I'm going to announce my vice presidential nominee on a text message," and the mainstream media spin and stir around it, and a frenzy ensues. The National Enquirer runs a story about Jennifer Love Hewitt being overweight. She fires back on her blog and the news cycle shifts immediately in her favor and women all over relate to what she is going through and stand up for her. It's an amazing liberating power, as a PR person, to have this opportunity now.

Sharon Liggins (ABC Studios): For ABC Studios and ABC Network, in terms of launching a show, it's still a mix of traditional and new media. It's still getting tapes available to critics. We're still navigating the blog space. Going back to the viral thing, we just announced the pickup of In the Motherhood, which was a success online and will be a traditional series, so we're going to be one of the first companies to take a show from online to a network and see if the audience will migrate from one to the other.


O'Brien (PRWeek): If you look at the past, trying to get a reporter to describe a show or movie by viewings and screeners, does it make more sense now, with new media, to give that information directly to the consumer?

Liggins (ABC Studios): It depends. We produce Lost, which is a huge fan favorite and we've struggled with the season premiere from this past season. Do we keep giving it to the traditional media? Or do we go to the fan sites and give it to them? And literally, we went with both: the key traditional press, and some bloggers and fan sites. For us, it's always a constant battle as to which media to go to and we're still trying to figure it out.

Bragman (Fifteen Minutes): There are a lot of legendary PR people in this town who are so proud of controlling the message and you just have to let this go. And you know, as David said, the audience has a great bullshit detectors. They know when it is real and they know when it is not. And [a company] can do all they want to put something out there and make it look viral, but the fans are going to like it or they're not. Stuff has to succeed on its own and has to be credible and as smart as we are, none of us have that magic formula. If we did, we'd all have only hit TV shows and only hit films.

Krug (Rogers & Cowan): Take the example of Jimmy Kimmel [and Sarah Silverman]'s "I'm F'ing Matt Damon" and "I'm F'ing Ben Affleck" segments that they did. It's nominated for an Emmy [Silverman won an Emmy] for that. You can go about doing something to make it funny, but obviously, your audience is going to be the judge of that.

Stamper (Fleishman): The younger audience, they don't just want to receive the content online. This is the generation who grew up being the content, so you have to give it in a way that allows them to insert themselves into the content. They grew up with their first soccer match on film, their first ballet practice on film. They won't relate to the content unless they are actually in it as well. And we've worked with brands [that] pay a lot of money for copyright and control and all those things, and we say, "If you want to attract a younger audience, you've got to put the content out there and let them mash it up and play with it how they want."

Bollinger (HBA): I find [this area of new media and PR] terribly labor intensive, if you will, aside from the fact that I may not be as familiar with it all as some younger folks. My sons came in and kind of educated me about what the possibilities were in this area. I still find it to be terribly labor intensive and I wonder how people deal with that?

Bragman (Fifteen Minutes): Part of the interesting thing with dealing with the Internet is so many of them do not care about the truth. Speed trumps accuracy.

Fleishman (Warner Bros.): It's so hard, especially when people are saying things about your company—things that simply are not true. It's really difficult, to Henri's point about labor intensity. It's a lot of work trying to track down where something is coming from. Look to what happened to United Airlines with that [bankruptcy] story resurfacing. I think they lost $3 off of their stock. That's the sort of stuff too that is really frightening what can actually happen.

Ender (CBS): The biggest issue we all face is the speed of the news cycle. When incorrect information gets out there, you've got to work really hard to sort of reengineer that DNA. It can stick for a long time.

Arons (Rubenstein): And you have to determine how you do it. Do you do it through blogs? Do you go on CNN? That's the other definition of success. How do you stop it and how do you correct to get the truth to come to the top? You have to use all those mediums because you're not going to get it otherwise. You're going to be on the phone all day long.

Richard (Telemundo): You have to be smart about it. The best scenario [used to be] you pick up the phone and call people. Now you have to figure out how to lower it on the Google search. Maybe it's not that intensive, but it's different.

O'Brien (PRWeek): First, the Obama campaign started Stop The Smears. Then General Motors launched a Web site where they post rumors and corrections. It seems like in the past, the mentality was "If we are to mention this rumor out there, then we'll just further propagate it." But what do you think of these companies and organizations tackling rumors head on like this?

Ender (CBS): It's interesting that one of the old school companies—the automobile industry—has a very progressive PR effort there. It's true. If you don't tell your story, somebody else will and you might not like how they tell it. I applaud them for doing that.

Stamper (Fleishman): I think it heightens the importance of your corporate Web site. You can point people back or link people back to [your site] to see the definite source of the truth. It becomes a repository of the truth and that's better than going out and trying to put out every fire on every blog or Web site. You do it in your own space.

O'Brien (PRWeek): Let's talk about the Writers Guild Strike from a PR perspective. Were there any benefits from it?

Rhi Buckley (Music Center at the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County): I sold more tickets. Live entertainment, to be perfectly honest, it's not 100% measureable, but we definitely saw a shift in our attendance.

Stamper (Fleishman): Some celebrities were cheaper to get when they weren't working.

MacKenzie (MS&L): I thought the strike gave the mass audience a chance to find something else to interest them and potentially never come back to what they were doing.

Krug (Rogers & Cowan): We had a lot of bookers coming to us for a lot of our athletes, because the strike wasn't affecting what the athletes could do. Our recommendation was to not put athletes on shows and stand behind the writers and actors. That was something that was an interesting thing that we hadn't dealt with before.

Bragman (Fifteen Minutes): Reality producers won, some of our hosting talent won, some of our reality clients won. But nobody won because the economy is bad for everyone. If you add [the strike] to a bad economy overall, [it's bad]. Anybody who says it isn't hurting the business; I mean, my business is growing, but I can only imagine what it would be if the strike didn't happen. You take two steps forward and one step back.

Richard (Telemundo): We actually saw an increase in our ratings. Spanish-language TV [was] not affected by the strike, and Hispanic bilinguals came over. So that was a benefit. But it's not a real benefit.

O'Brien (PRWeek): Obviously, the numbers are down across the board, but is there any retention with the popular shows?

Liggins (ABC Studios): Grey's Anatomy was down. Ugly Betty was down. Desperate Housewives had a little bump. For all of our core shows, they were down.

Richard (Telemundo): I think maybe the cable industry was a little more insulated, but this time even more because of the strike, they've seen growth.

Fleishman (Warner Bros.): It was really horrible and damaging. I cannot find one good thing to say about the strike. We had to let people go. That was horrible for our management. We had to make a lot of really tough choices. It was terrible. I was depressed for that entire time.

Krug (Rogers & Cowan): In sports it's the same thing, when you're dealing with a lock out or not having activities. The dedicated fans…get annoyed [and] upset, same thing with TV too. The casual fan goes somewhere else. And that's the biggest problem.

Fleishman (Warner Bros.): If you read a lot of the press, you'd see the ancillary businesses were also deeply affected. A lot of people couldn't cut it: catering companies, things like that. They were mad at everyone who was involved in this and they had a right to be.

O'Brien (PRWeek): You talk about the sports leagues that have had a lock out or something, and, for example, with baseball, fans eventually came back. Is there not even that optimism?

Ender (CBS): If the product is good, they'll come back.

Arons (Rubenstein): I also think that people didn't understand it was the writers. They just knew that they couldn't get their TV show or original episode. The writers were not as effective at getting out their own message and saying, "The caterers are losing money, and the lighting people, and all these other people who are hurt."

Krug (Rogers & Cowan): The general population doesn't really understand the effects and even though all the TV shows or the sport is back on air, there is the underlying ramification of the damage that it did across the board.

Stamper (Fleishman): The days of must-see television are gone. People will TiVo it. I think that's what the strike did. Consumers found their content in other places and at other times, which better suit them. It's about the success of the content on all the different channels.

O'Brien: Do you think that the talent, because of the drop off in ratings and viewers, more willing to do PR things that maybe they were more reluctant to do?

MacKenzie (MS&L): That is such an interesting question because you know where talent isn't afraid to go? The brands! They may not want to do it for the show or the network, but they are so plugged into the fact that, "Gee, I can go to P&G and they'll give me $3 million to do this?"

Bragman (Fifteen Minutes): They understand that they need multiple revenue streams. Talent is now becoming brands and corporations. They are corporations because they need multiple revenue streams and they are brands because they have to have a career, they have to have a personal life, and they have to stand for something in terms of causes.

Stamper (Fleishman): Actors realize the paycheck can stop like that (snaps), so they are much more open now to working with brands and looking for those other revenue streams. A lot of actors have their own blogs [and Web sites], and they know how to work it.

Arons (Rubenstein): Athletes have been doing that for such a long time. [Actors] just took from that playbook.

Bollinger (HBA): The people who drove that were the managers behind the athletes, and in the entertainment industry, every one of the major agencies have developed departments that are focused [seeing] what revenue they can generate from a brand standpoint with their clients.

Stamper (Fleishman): It's interesting that you say that. It started with sports people because their careers were traditional so much shorter. So they have think, "What am I going to do when I am 35 and I'm not doing the sport thing anymore?" And other than the high-end echelon like Nicole Kidman and Leonardo DiCaprio, celebrities are all looking around and saying "What can I do after this? How can I get brand loyalty? What can I do with different companies?"

Liggins (ABC Studios): But we look at it as more of a blessing because any time they do an ad or appearance based on their branding campaign, they will mention "Star of Lost," "Star of Desperate Housewives," "Star of Ugly Betty."

O'Brien (PRWeek): Looking at the music industry, how does Ticketmaster work directly with the artists and musicians now, building their brands without necessarily having to go through the record label?

Lopez (Ticketmaster): I think the music industry is substantially different than film and television in that the artist pretty much controls what they want. It's not so much a battle with us and the label or management. It's how willing the artist is to let us handle what it is we want to do on behalf of them. We're going in there with things that are completely different than what they are used to, like paperless tickets.

Arons (Rubenstein): The fan club has become one of the primary communications tools and ticket-selling tools. And for PR, we're using fan sites for blogging and we're using blogs to get to fan sites. New media is so important in music and in that connection.

Lopez (Ticketmaster): There is a digital divide between these artists. The Eagles and Metallica and AC/DC don't want to have anything to do with iTunes because they want to sell the CDs exclusively at Wal-Mart, versus [situations like where] we support Kanye West and Keith Urban. The interaction is directly between the fans and the artists, blogging and with their own official communications. They don't need to speak to the New York Times; they don't need to speak to TMZ.

O'Brien (PRWeek): I wanted to get into the question of staffing the next generation of entertainment PR professionals. Are you having trouble finding talent out there? Is diversity an issue?

Liggins (ABC Studios): I think it's challenging finding people from diverse backgrounds. As a person of color, I've always loved PR and I've always been in it. But when I speak at colleges or speak to interns or speak to people coming up through the ranks, they have this perception that PR is this big, huge glamorous job, where you are going to parties, and you're on the red carpet. When they come and work with us, and we actually put them to work, they realize this is more work. Then just on the skills level, I just find that people don't write. They do bring the blogging intelligence that some of us are catching up on.

Lopez (Ticketmaster): There is a colossal lack of ability to have an organized train of thought.

Fleishman (Warner Bros.): They are so scattered and they are so ADD because everything is so fragmented.

Bragman (Fifteen Minutes): The only way you can succeed is by being diverse, in age, and by talent. Of my celebrity talent, I would say 40% are either people of color, or GLBT, and when they come in my office, they have to see that or they are not going be there. They have to feel that we're the real deal and we're authentic.

Bollinger (HBA): I am a member of a union [Entertainment Publicists Professional Society] that represents publicists and we're constantly trying to make the membership more diverse and it's been an ongoing battle all the years that I've been in the industry. We don't have the answers and I don't know what the answer is. But there is no question that we should become more diverse.

Buckley (Music Center at the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County): I've been very involved with the Hispanic Public Relations Association. It's a small organization based in Los Angeles. As a Latina in PR and marketing, I think a lot of these students are looking at, for example, Edelman's multicultural division. They are sort of being pigeon-holed into divisions of multicultural PR. There's not a lot of awareness of the various opportunities that exist outside of the walls of the multicultural divisions.

Stamper (Fleishman): From an agency perspective, in terms of levels, finding those mid-level people is the hardest part. There are a lot of junior people coming in and they are attracted by the glitz and the glamour and doing the red carpets and going to the parties. After a while, they are like 'OK, I've done that, I want to be a bit more strategic or beyond that.' And that's where, I feel, there are a lot of openings for people to go in-house at studios and work more on a business goal and with brands and with the bigger agencies.

Krug (Rogers & Cowan): This past year, I've never seen more talented people, interns, new people who have joined our agency, and that's actually given me some hope.

Bragman (Fifteen Minutes): The hardest thing to find is passion. [There is a] disconnect between what they think PR is and what PR really is.

Arons (Rubenstein): Agencies have a responsibility, also, to encourage that young talent. To encourage them to stay, whether it is helping them learn those writing skills or letting them know that they don't have to go to an ethnic publicity office in order to do the campaign for a Tyler Perry movie. I think that the agencies have a responsibility to bringing those young people in and getting them so they get over their enthusiasm and creating passion. It can't always come from them. I think we have to do a good job of inspiring them.

O'Brien (PRWeek): Does anyone have any points that they want to discuss about the industry?

Ender (CBS): Another big issue that we all face is that nothing ever stays a secret anymore. Sue and I were part of probably the last great secret, which was the formation of The CW. That's the last announcement I can remember being involved in that caught people by surprise.

O'Brien (PRWeek): Is there a solution to that? Or a way to be prepared for a situation of leaking information?

Ender (CBS): Get out in front of it. Tell it on your terms.

Richard (Telemundo): We were working on a major deal we were doing with the biggest broadcasting network in Mexico. We were actually forcing the legal team to delay the signing because we were heading up to a Friday, the biggest nightmare. You want the biggest coverage of this and we're getting to 3 or 4 pm. We on the PR team were ready to go and planned to announce on Monday. It was leaked in Mexico and came out in the Wall Street Journal online on Sunday. In these leaking situations, I think Saturdays and Sundays don't exist anymore in PR. You can announce on a Sunday and it's as good as Thursday or Wednesday nowadays. At the end of the day, if you can't hold it back, it is just going to come out.

O'Brien (PRWeek): Do you feel like, given the increase of leaked stories and the various ways to get information out there, that journalists don't have quite the leverage that they did in the past?

Bragman (Fifteen Minutes): Some journalists do. TMZ has huge leverage right now. I put something out on TMZ about a client who was going to be on the cover of Playboy and by Monday it was the No. 1 search on AOL from one TMZ thing. That's huge leverage. The trades in Hollywood? No leverage. It's not like the old days.

Ender (CBS): Leverage is still determined by the value of your content. If you have a big star or a big story, you have the upper hand.

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