Infighting compromises SAG's message

Observers say a unified message is key as SAG pursues a new deal with film and TV producers

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is facing off against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) in often-contentious contract negotiations. The previous contract expired on June 30, 2008. However, the public may be more aware of internal battles among SAG's own factions, which are damaging the group's overall messaging effort.
“The union is in a state of turmoil, and SAG has not looked this bad in a long time,” says Jonathan Handel, an entertainment lawyer at TroyGould Attorneys and a blogger who covers the SAG situation.
Unite For Strength, the faction with the majority of seats on SAG's national board, is against a strike. Meanwhile, chief negotiator Doug Allen and national president Alan Rosenberg are in line with the Membership First group, which has promoted striking. Pro-strike groups have generally been known for aggressive communications strategies in order to ensure their positions are heard.
“The Membership First-ers really use very harsh and severe language to describe their fight,” explains Aaron Barnhart, media critic for the Kansas City Star. “The Unite For Strength people say, ‘That's inappropriate. We really need to do... a deal now.'”
The internal strife has resulted in SAG repeatedly showing a disorganized public face. On January 19, Unite For Strength called for the replacement of Allen, who has been criticized for his negotiation skills throughout this process.

Elsewhere, SAG member Frances Fisher forwarded e-mails to colleagues encouraging a boycott of SAG Award-nominated actors because of their stances against a possible strike. The board then denounced the proposed boycott and Fisher apologized.
“The number one tenet of media relations and PR is to speak with a unified voice,” says Howard Bragman, chairman, founder, and CEO of Fifteen Minutes. “If you have an organization that is not unified, what do you do? The first thing is they need to be honest. They need to say, ‘We own some internal differences.' But they need to characterize them as differences within the family.”
The union is working with Sitrick & Company for PR, says SAG communications executive director Pamela Greenwalt. In addition, it has updated its online newsroom and is doing more outreach to digital media, among other PR tactics.
When asked how SAG goes forward with messages and PR when there is internal conflict, Greenwalt says, via e-mail, “We work every day to inform and educate our key stakeholders, including members, the industry, and the general public, about SAG's critical bargaining issues and our important efforts in gaining a fair contract.
“Our communications reflect the policy decisions made by our national board of directors,” she adds, “[which] is made up of elected members who dedicate huge chunks of their lives to service on behalf of the membership.”
Allen and Rosenberg are considering sending the proposed contract from the AMPTP to SAG members, rather than authorizing a strike vote. This could send a clear message to the AMPTP, and also result in a more unified communications effort by the union.
SAG is considering sending out the proposed deal “in hopes that they can get everybody riled up one more time and maybe this will produce the momentum to go back and play hardball with the AMPTP,” says Barnhart. “By submitting the deal to the rank and file, they can send to the AMPTP a message that the members are not happy with it.”
However, Barnhart notes, by introducing the contract to the members and going back to the table, SAG could be inviting even more press coverage about internal disagreements.
As such, Bragman says the organization, while being honest about its differences, should frame its overall message on the things that its members almost universally agree upon, and reach out to key media members with that explanation.

“One thing organizations can learn is the importance of reaching out to the media, including mainstream media and key bloggers, whether or not someone is viewed as a friend or foe,” Handel says.

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