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Pitched battle

In taking their cases to the public, writers and execs could use script doctors.

November 18, 2007|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

When images of the writers strike first popped into the public consciousness, Hollywood outsiders got an impression of two sides in some sort of vague but nasty fight.

On one side were the red-shirted writers and their handsome celebrity supporters waving old-fashioned placards, calling themselves "labor" and asking for their "fair share." On the other, a bit more murkily, were the corporate suits, talking reassuringly but perhaps coolly about profits and the future of technology.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, November 19, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
WGA representative: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about public relations for both sides in the writers strike called Sherry Goldman a Writers Guild of America spokeswoman. She is a WGA East spokeswoman.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 25, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
WGA representative: An article last Sunday about public relations for both sides in the writers strike called Sherry Goldman a Writers Guild of America spokeswoman. She is a WGA East spokeswoman.

After one week, there was no doubt who was winning the public-image face off. Two surveys, one national and one local, showed that roughly two-thirds were taking the writers' side in the dispute. In a Pepperdine University survey, only 4% favored the studios; in a local ABC7 News Poll conducted by SurveyUSA, 8% took the side of producers. The rest weren't exactly sure what was going on with the strike.

In a time of economic anxiety, the general public clearly sympathized with the placard wavers on the street, even if some drive fancier cars or lunch with the Hollywood elite. Yet it wasn't clear how much of that support was due to shared fears of an uncertain future or public-relations campaigns in one of the nation's highest-profile labor spats in recent years. Nor was it clear what exactly a PR advantage would provide and how long it might last.

Indeed, as the two sides bicker, stumble and scramble to "get their message out," much of the outside world hasn't heard them, or doesn't much care. Longtime Hollywood publicist Pat Kingsley, who ought to know, said it was hard to relate to anyone during the first week of the strike, which began Nov. 5. "They're talking about issues we don't understand. Who understands the Internet stuff?"

In response to the writers' early lead, producers, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, ratcheted up their response last week with full-page advertisements in The Times and the trades and statements criticizing the Writers Guild of America's tactics"We held our own until there was a strike," said Barbara Brogliatti, spokeswoman for the alliance, which has followed a strategy of print and online reasoning aimed at working writers. "Now the problem is, I'm fighting sound bites," she said. Their message: "We are trying to negotiate a fair and responsible deal that respects the needs of both the WGA members as well as the producers," she said.

Studio executives, she said, have limited their comments to "organic" responses that fit their area of expertise. They often spoke "on background" to reporters, appearing confident their bottom line would hold. As CBS chief Les Moonves told financial analysts: "Our dramas and comedies repeat extremely well."

Star power

Meanwhile, the writers, who are seeking greater revenue when their work is distributed in new media, leafleted Wall Street, picketed with stars such as Jay Leno, Ray Romano, Michael Imperioli and Tina Fey, and welcomed fans to the picket lines.

For the writers, a strong PR strategy aimed at winning "hearts and minds" of the public is essential to win an "asymmetrical war," said Michael Winship, president of WGA East. "We all recognize the power of the studios and networks we're fighting. As such, PR becomes one of our most powerful weapons."

But how that weapon might ultimately help the writers accomplish their strike goals is not completely clear.

"They know the power of the media, if only that it's powerful," said crisis manager Howard Bragman of L.A.-based Fifteen Minutes, who recently represented former "Grey's Anatomy" actor Isaiah Washington. He suggested that the unspoken goal of a publicity campaign might be to rally the WGA's 10,000 members themselves who are divided into East and West units and represent a vast economic range with a stratified pecking order. "Public support helps keep them together so they keep a unified front. Maybe they're using external methods for an internal campaign," he said.

However, the WGA's Winship said widespread publicity serves to alert producers and companies that writers have more support, solidarity and stamina than might have been originally anticipated. "I hope it would bring them back to the table and bargain fairly," he said. (As of midweek, no talks were scheduled.)

Public-relations tactics and labor action in such a high-profile industry could conceivably be a combustible mixture. Both sides are aware that a popular strike may have long-term political repercussions for producers in the event Congress takes up related issues such as technology or residuals, said Harley Shaiken, a professor at UC Berkeley specializing in labor-relations issues. "If it is the writers who have the upper hand in terms of public support and sympathy, that could prove to be a real problem down the road," he said.

WGA West President Patric Verrone and SAG President Alan Rosenberg were scheduled to meet with House and Senate lawmakers as well as members of the FCC last week.

Jockeying for position

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