Lehane's work on 'Sicko' reaches a broad audience

One might be forgiven for thinking Chris Lehane has the held the world's most demanding PR job - twice.

One might be forgiven for thinking Chris Lehane has the held the world's most demanding PR job - twice.

A veteran of the Clinton White House and Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, he has spent much of his recent time fending off attacks on lighting rod director Michael Moore and his new film Sicko.

It's not the first time Lehane has worked with Moore. In 2004, he was contracted by the Weinstein Company to assist on communications for Fahrenheit 9/11, a harsh critique of the Bush White House that wound up as one of the highest grossing documentaries ever.

As with all Moore films, Lehane had his hands full. Sicko, a withering attack on the US healthcare industry, was never going to be taken lightly by industry allies.

"In some ways, the film is analogous to the process you go through when you support a political candidate [and] put out a specific policy proposal," he explains.

Lehane notes that the work is unique from a film perspective in that it's covered by both the entertainment press, interested in the business the film does, as well as the traditional news media. From the time of its Cannes Film Festival premiere, Sicko has generated buzz across the board. From the get-go, Lehane sought to ensure Moore's message wasn't squashed by special interest groups.

"You're dealing with an industry that historically approaches this like a knife fight in a phone booth. Whenever you're in that type of fight, it's better to bring a gun," Lehane says wryly. "Whenever they did or said anything in the weeks leading up to this, we made sure to respond in two ways. [First,] with overwhelming force. Second, we made sure [to present] facts that would trump falsehoods or inaccuracies they put out."

In the weeks following the film's release, Lehane recalls a conference call in which a group aligned with the healthcare industry was putting out information about one of the victims in the film that they claimed showed Moore's film was not faithful to the facts. His team sent an e-mail blast, updated the film's Web site, and made sure their version of the facts was in the hands of reporters - all before the conference call was over.

There are substantial differences between the kind of communications work needed for Fahrenheit and Sicko, claims Lehane. "With Fahrenheit, we recognized that there was a base audience, which was essentially blue America. Those were the folks who were going to respond to it. With Sicko, it was pretty clear there was the potential for a much longer, bigger, expanded moviegoer, which changes how you roll the film out."

As the film was released, Lehane says the healthcare industry tried to not create a direct conflict that would fuel media hype. Still, press attention was high given Moore's profile, and Lehane feels his team has been relatively successful given the industry's reaction.

"The industry has gone for an interesting trajectory," he notes. "In the first few weeks coming out of Cannes, its clear strategy was to lean into the movie, which is understandable. As opposed to trying to create conflict, they were out there essentially saying we all agree we need healthcare reform.

"In the last week or two, they have changed their tack," Lehane adds. "I think that reflects the fact that they recognize that the movie was generating both significant interest from moviegoers, Wall Street, and public-policy makers."

Looking back, Lehane realizes that the first weeks were crucial for setting the narrative that would carry Sicko into broad release. His team's efforts in the initial weeks and the industry's reluctance to engage may have set the course.

"As a matter of basic communications principals," he explains, "it's always very difficult to engage and try to go after something [if you] do it late in the game."

Chris Lehane

Partner, Fabiani & Lehane

Press secretary, Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign

White House Press Secretary to Vice President Al Gore

Special assistant counsel to President Clinton

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