Granting press extensive behind-the-scenes access creates an experience that boosts awards viewership
Since news spread last month that regional grocery employees had authorized representatives to strike if contract negotiations broke down, labor relation issues have been top of mind in Southern California.
Though less reliant on grassroots demonstrations, another influential union in Hollywood is equally as engaged in protecting its members' rights. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) - an AFL-CIO affiliate - is a 74-year-old labor union designed to protect the rights of actors, enhance their working conditions and benefits, and defend against the unauthorized use of their work.
Unlike its grocery-worker counterpart, SAG had the opportunity to spread its message with a celebration: the annual SAG Awards. The two-hour program, this year simulcast on TNT and TBS, honors the most notable achievements in TV and film acting, as voted by the union's 100,000 active members.
In addition to the 1,100 SAG members who attend the event, every member has a "vested interest in watching because they voted," says Rosalind Jarrett, SAG Awards' executive in charge of publicity. But the show also is highly accessible to non-industry audiences, she explains. While other awards shows focus on accomplishments of directors, producers, and other behind-the-camera talent, the SAG Awards honor only actors - the stars viewers know and recognize.
"From an audience perspective, these are people they see on the screen," Jarrett says, adding that in attracting viewers, that face and name recognition is especially valuable.
As always, this year's 13th annual program, held January 28 at LA's Shrine Exposition Center, fell in the heart of a season packed with awards shows vying for viewers. To encourage audience attention, SAG's in-house PR and marketing team partnered with a group of PR pros, including TNT network reps, senior-level publicists and credentialists, and New York-based agencies Krupp Kommunications (K2) and PMK/HBH.
There wasn't any competition between teams, says Heidi Krupp, K2 president and CEO. In fact, she says, "It was everyone's personal relationships with the show that really drove the publicity campaign."
Andy Gelb, VP at PMK/HBH agrees. "All teams worked together," he says. "It's unusual, but everyone worked hand in hand."
This high level of teamwork and expertise, Jarrett says, has significantly helped SAG bolster its awards show talent turnout and expand its at-home viewing audience. This year's show was the most-watched awards ceremony on cable TV, with 5.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings. And, notes Gelb, "PR [efforts] keep growing as the show grows."
Promoted via consumer, industry, and union relations outreach, including press releases, e-mail and Web outreach, SAG member and affiliate newsletters, and an online auction to benefit SAG Foundation charities, one significant advancement in piquing audience interest in the awards evolved from SAG's willingness to provide media extensive behind-the-scenes access. This translates to readers and viewers, Jarrett says, allowing at-home audiences to feel as if they're in on an enormous dinner party in some celebrity's living room.
"We're very media-friendly," she says. "Our feeling is that we're in a partnership with the media. [If we help media] cover the show better, we're going to get better exposure showcasing the work of our union."
That investment has paid off, with increases in media coverage both in the week leading up to the SAG Awards, as well as in post-ceremony TV segments and articles. And, according to K2, SAG works closely with each outlet to determine exactly what kind of coverage would be most appropriate, from USA Today's pre-show presenter updates to the LA Times' coverage of the pouring of SAG's bronze Actor statuettes. That strategy extends the life of the campaign and allows for multiple exclusives.
The networks airing the SAG Awards also this year crafted specifically targeted PR and promotional campaigns for each audience, Jarrett says. TNT tailored efforts around its "We know drama" mantra, while TBS focused more on comedy.
"This gives each network the opportunity to promote the show with its own tone and character, its own feel and style," she says.
But when the evening is over, and the last of the celebrity stragglers toss aside their champagne flutes and head toward waiting limos for a final photo, is that really the end of seven months of strategic PR planning?
Not yet, Jarrett says. After the event, the publicity team will "follow up with a note to media and publicists for constructive criticism, to know how to make everyone's life work better the following year," she notes.
Ultimately, Jarrett says, "The importance of this show comes from the fact that these are actors." Without the support of the media, the networks, and viewers at home, SAG "doesn't have a show," she explains. "But without the support of the union, there is also no show."
At a glance
Screen Actors Guild
Key trade titles:
Back Stage, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter
(SAG): Pamela Greenwalt, communications executive director
Adria DeBaca, director of communications
Carrie White, publicist
(SAG Awards): Rosalind Jarrett, executive in charge of publicity
(TNT): Diane Herzog, PR
Marketing services agencies:
PR agencies: Krupp Kommunications and PMK/HBH