Peter Bart: Hollywood’s Gridlock, Corporate Cuts Take Toll On PR Operatives

“I know how to change bad news into good news,” Edward L. Bernays, the father of public relations, used to boast. Since he was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, I wonder how he’d find a positive mind-set among today’s practitioners of his craft.

During these times of gridlock, PR reps are widely forbidden from hustling the wares of their star clients. Further, free-spending corporate clients, once focused on image building, are now running for cover and laying off PR teams.

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Sign of the times: The mega-publicized company WeWork that raised billions and helped foster its own TV profile has told its PR reps to confirm its last rites.

PR firms, like talent agencies, are laying off staff and canceling leases. Giant companies like Disney and Comcast confront a media landscape that has quickly turned from benign to belligerent. Even Target is taking a hit.

Publicists for the Magic Kingdom must now face daily stories dealing with “wokelash,” or with rising subscriber fees and theme-park prices or prospective entry into the gambling business. And, finally, how did Disney manage to lose $11 billion in its first four years of streaming?

Comcast, which has fostered its paternalistic image as a calm and apolitical Philadelphia-based corporate power that coincidentally owns assets like NBC and Universal, suddenly finds itself also dodging media brickbats from the right.

While a confrontive Bob Iger generates headlines at Disney, Brian Roberts, the billionaire who runs Comcast, affirms his policy of invisibility in the media. So does his president, Mike Cavanaugh – the only media CEO who no newsman has ever seen.

Yet Comcast was on page one of this week’s Wall Street Journal as conservative activists blast what they feel are overly aggressive policies on inclusion.

Public relations operatives for global companies used to have the cushiest jobs in PR – witness Disney last year paying $1 million to one PR man, then firing him for dealing ineptly with wokelash. Bill O’Reilly, once a star of Fox News, is critical of Comcast contributions to liberal Democratic candidates like Raphael Warnock and of MSNBC’s shrill left-wing tilt.

Major entertainment companies once were famously arrogant in their dealings with the media: Disney banned the Los Angeles Times from screenings in response to critical stories. Iger’s long-term PR chief was so antagonistic toward media inquiries that she would simply hang up if a reporter became inquisitive.

Comcast, by contrast, has skated above the fray – but again has hit speed bumps. Steve Burke, NBCUniversal’s former boss, was so frosty with the media that reporters avoided him, not the other way around. Jeff Shell was the mirror opposite — convivial and communicative — but was suddenly fired in April on charges of sexual malfeasance. Universal came out of its PR shell and instantly erased that scandal.

Are media companies paying a price for their confused response to wokelash? The Wall Street Journal regularly reports that Disney’s theme parks are sustaining a mild setback — but increased pricing may be a cause, not political backlash.

One of WSJ‘s columnists, Andy Kessler, this week reiterated his list of “Mickey Mouse Mistakes”: A 20% jump in ad-free streaming prices, a decline in ESPN subscribers from 100 million to 70 million over 10 years, and even the possibility of damage from Disney’s gambling deal with Penn National.

Given this static, PR operatives generally have assumed a “shelter in place” attitude. But with major film festivals looming, will the stars get restive with that posture? Won’t they pressure their edgy press agents to find new avenues for promotion?

Since PR gurus can no longer get Edward Bernays on the phone, they can at least consult the writings of his uncle. Sigmund Freud, for one, has never been invisible.

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