AFTER FIVE YEARS at this job, I still find myself perplexed by the utter inability of communications companies to communicate. Vast corporations that pride themselves on their ability to reach the world with their movies and TV shows turn to Jell-O when it comes to telling their own stories. To see the results, simply examine the news stories of the past two weeks. First we saw Disney disgorging itself of Jeffrey Katzenberg in a manner designed to ignite maximum anger and media noise. Then came NBC president Bob Wright categorically denying that his network would be sold to Time Warner, only to be contradicted a day later by the usual “high network sources” assuring us that negotiations were taking place after all. These “sources” put Warners’ Bob Daly in a corner. He observed that while NBC was in play, therecould be several potential buyers — not just Time Warner. Hence he decided it would be prudent to reassure his studio and his partners that Warners was proceeding with plans for its fifth network. Capping all this was the Leak of the Week — Jeff Sagansky’s appointment to a top post at Sony. While Sony ultimately acknowledged that it had signed the former CBS exec, the company was unwilling to spell out his duties, thus encouraging the media to put an invidious spin on the story. All of which raises several interesting questions: Why do companies such as these consistently manifest a deer-in-the-headlights syndrome when faced with important announcements? Have these corporations become so vast that events simply sweep over them, leaving their CEOs squirming in the spotlight? What further exacerbates the situation is the total absence of “good will” between the companies and the press. It was not long ago that a cordial relationship existed between reporters and top showbiz figures. The press posed its questions; responsible execs readily responded, either on the record or off.
TODAY MORE AND MORE COMPANIES are simply incommunicado. At Warners, production execs are sternly forbidden to talk to reporters. One senior executive was actually reprimanded because his name appeared in a Variety story in the context of an existing project, even though he hadn’t volunteered information. At 20th Century Fox, which has a particularly genialgroup of production executives, the iron curtain was recently slammed down by Peter Chernin. All questions are shunted off to the studio’s feisty PR chief Andrea Jaffe (who departed last week). When a Daily Variety reporter attempted to contact Chernin to ascertain that this indeed represented his policy, her calls went unanswered — Chernin declined comment as to why he would decline to comment. Some senior bureaucrats may feel this taciturnity manifests true corporate discipline, but let me enumerate some unfortunate side-effects: n Stories appear in the press that are ill-informed or premature. n The vacuum of reliable information is exploited by competitors to put forth a campaign of disinformation. n Stockholders as well as employees become angry because they feel misled. n Reporters, impatient with the absence of cooperation, develop a hostility that gives rise to what’s known in Washington these days as “attitude writing.”
THE CHIEF OF ONE STUDIO ADMITTED to me, “There’s no point in our trying to announce new film projects anymore — they’re all leaked by agents to the press before we can get them cleared.” To be sure, some showbiz executives are highlyskilled at handling their press relations. Barry Diller, for one, has always had smarts when it came to publicity. “Barry understands that the news process is something of a trade-off,” says the entertainment writer for a major newspaper. “He gives something and he gets something.” Ironically, Jeffrey Katzenberg, late of Disney, also understood the dynamics of a trade-off. He was a willing source of insights about the entertainment industry, but clearly had his own agenda. But how about everyone else? Over the past couple of weeks I’ve made a point of discussing this question with the heads of several entertainment companies. One said he would think it over. Another said he would discuss it with his top press people. Another said he had no comment. One person I decided not to ask was Rupert Murdoch, because I knew what his answer would be. “Why should I worry about the press — I own it,” Rupert would reply with his customary directness. That’s a tough position to argue with.