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.
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.”
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
There’s plenty of irony in this PR battle among master image-makers. Both sides are experts in influencing the public and responding to their tastes, Shaiken noted. Although both have exploited new media with Internet videos and blogs, old-fashioned shoe leather still resonates in the public mind. “Now,” he said, “it is a reality show on the sidewalk in terms of how this is played out.”
In a period of economic insecurity, there is much general sympathy for people who are seen as trying to make a living and fearing major changes will undermine their position, he said. “It’s a strike that more broadly resonates with working Americans, even though the range of writers’ income is all over the map,” he said.
Part of the union’s strategy was to paint the writers as middle-class “next-door neighbors,” said a WGA spokeswoman, Sherry Goldman. While their incomes might average out to be middle-class (just over $94,000 a year for TV writers), they range from hand-to-mouth to top-of-the-hill. Many are next-door neighbors with celebrity friends who can get them air time on “Entertainment Tonight.”
The writers’ and actors’ unions have been working together for two years, Goldman said. “Their support added a visibility,” she said. “There’s a certain amount of media interested in covering it from the entertainment point of view. Writers are somewhat unknown. CBS and Viacom are very visible names.”
Though writers tend to be wordy, chief negotiators came up with a simple mantra that Goldman used so many times it left her hoarse: “If they get paid, we get paid.”
The early returns
The writers’ strategy seemed to pay off despite the public- relations challenges posed by such as a large and disparate national membership that isn’t always united.
Publicists and crisis managers, however, said it was too early to issue a definitive score card. According to one school of thought, public sympathy always goes to the strikers anyway. Another has it that whoever is the first to walk away from the table, costing many people their daily living, will have to shoulder the blame. When talks broke down, each side immediately blamed the other.
Some publicists said neither side had mounted a particularly persuasive argument on the issues. How the writers want to change their 600-page contract is too complex to explain in sound bites, they said. Until last week, the producers hadn’t said much beyond needing more time to figure out new media.
One publicist who insisted on anonymity was amazed by these sort of comments from the producers’ side regarding new media. “Guys, it’s been around for 10 years,” he said sarcastically. “It’s not a good answer.”
At the same time, the WGA West’s in-house staff, hired two years ago in a regime change, has apparently suffered a few missteps in the early days of the strike: Jesse Jackson’s appearance at a rally struck an odd civil-rights note, some said; statements released long past deadline have irritated seasoned journalists.
Nor is the other side a flawless PR juggernaut. The producers alliance staff was sharply criticized when an overblown statement compared WGA strike rules to “blacklisting.”
Last week’s ads in trade magazines and the Los Angeles Times called “Setting the Record Straight” represented AMPTP’s most comprehensive public statement on the Internet issues to date. It pointed out in large type that writers were paid more than $260 million in residuals in 2006, including residuals on permanent digital downloads and pay-per-view digital downloads.
David Young, chief negotiator of the Writers Guild of America, immediately responded with a statement: “That was our contractual share of a record-setting $20 billion the studios earned from reruns of the work we created. . . .”
Still, considering competing issues such as the war in Iraq, it may not be that easy to get the general public outside the Hollywood bubble to care, Bragman said. “The public only cares, ‘Why can’t we see Jon Stewart?’ ” he said. “ ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ is getting more play on the entertainment shows. The public will start to pay attention after Christmas when ‘Lost’ isn’t on.”