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Studios bring in PR doctors

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Seeking to shore up its flagging public image, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has retained a consulting firm known for creating controversies in media and politics on behalf of well-heeled clients.

The alliance, which represents the Hollywood studios, said it had hired Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, who have served as senior aides and advisors to President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. The duo have a reputation for hardball tactics in damage control and inflicting damage on opponents.

The alliance also said it had hired Steve Schmidt, a close advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who served as his campaign manager in 2006.

Tapping the consultants signals that the studios are preparing for what could be a protracted and increasingly nasty strike. Negotiations between writers and the studios have made no progress this week, fueling speculation that the studios may soon turn their attention to negotiating a deal with movie and TV directors, whose contract expires in June.

The advisors took over last week from Barbara Brogliatti, who had been guiding the group's public relations strategy for much of the last 25 years. The former Warner Bros. executive remains a senior advisor to the group, which has been locked in contentious contract negotiations with the Writers Guild of America.

The move reflects a concerted push by the alliance to take a more aggressive approach in its public relations after polls conducted by Pepperdine University, Fox News and SurveyUSA showed widespread public support for the writers, now in the fifth week of a strike. The new strategy was evident last week, when a number of top media executives spoke to journalists about the slow pace of negotiations.

Among the handiwork was a full-page advertisement in the Hollywood trade papers that touted a "new economic partnership" offered to writers by the studios. The ad was targeted at "moderate" writers in an attempt to hive them off their union leaders, who dismissed the economic claims as wildly inaccurate, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Negotiators for writers and studios returned to the bargaining table Wednesday in their sixth session since talks resumed last week, but they remain far apart on key issues, including pay for work distributed over the Internet and compensation and benefits for writers who work in reality TV.

Since the strike began Nov. 5, the WGA has mounted a highly effective PR campaign against the major studios and the media conglomerates that own them. The guild has managed its public relations largely in-house, employing the talents of members to promote its cause with videos on YouTube and stage-managed picket lines.

To counter the offensive, studio executives recently decided to go outside for help. The alliance initially considered hiring Joe Lockhart, a former White House spokesman for Clinton, but he wasn't available.

The alliance then reached out to Fabiani and Lehane over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Fabiani and Lehane have a long history in Democratic politics. Lehane advised Clinton on how to deal with the Monica Lewinsky scandal and is known for his sharp tongue and fierce attacks on opponents.

As Al Gore's presidential campaign spokesman, he once compared Florida's secretary of state to "a Soviet commissar" during the 2000 recount.

Fabiani was former deputy mayor to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.

Beyond their political work, the men have worked on behalf of professional sports teams and leagues, including the National Hockey League, and clients including Cisco Systems Inc., Google Inc. and various Indian tribes.

They're also no strangers to Hollywood. They had worked with several studios and have a close relationship with News Corp., whose president, Peter Chernin, has emerged as a leader in efforts to negotiate a contract with writers.

Fabiani and Lehane worked with News Corp. in a campaign against Nielsen Media Research in 2004. For weeks, Nielsen was hammered publicly by a group dubbed the Don't Count Us Out Coalition, which was made up primarily of Latino and African American advocacy organizations opposed to the TV rating firm's plans to modernize how it measures viewing habits. The campaign was orchestrated by Fabiani and Lehane and funded by News Corp.

Schmidt, of Mercury Public Affairs in Sacramento, also has worked with several Hollywood studios and sports teams. He worked in the Bush White House, including as a strategist on the confirmations of John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court.

It is not yet clear who will serve as chief spokesman for the alliance. Currently, Sony Pictures Entertainment spokesman Jim Kennedy, a former spokesman to both President Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is filling that role.

richard.verrier@latimes.com

Times staff writer Joseph Menn contributed to this report.

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