Affliction flacks flourish thanks to scandal-prone thesps, suits

This past week has been a milestone one for the fast-growing corner of the PR business known as crisis communications.

On Sept. 10, Capitol Hill lawmakers asked the U.S. Dept. of Justice to launch a criminal probe into Martha Stewart. Two days later, Nick Nolte was arrested after failing a sobriety test. Winona Ryder was back in legal headlines that same day for a postponed pretrial hearing over her long-festering shoplifting case.

It’s cases like these that get crisis-PR specialists called in, pressure-cooker veterans who can handle a hot spot where the genteel conventions of standard entertainment publicity go out the window. Stewart and Ryder are examples of what can go wrong; many publicists agree their early PR in these scandals was badly botched.

Recently, Ryder signed on with Annette Wolf, giving up her isn’t-this-a-lark attitude and her “free Winona” T-shirt; her physical presence also was missing from the cameras’ glare outside the court hearing. Stewart, too, has become virtually invisible; no more cutting off Jane Clayson’s uncomfortable questions while trying to cut lettuce on “The Early Show.”

In an era of economic turmoil, there seems to be one showbiz job that is booming: crisis communications. Thanks to the Internet, 24-hour news channels, the tabloids and endless entertainment-news segments on TV, there is a ravenous market for scandals. That area now encompasses everything from under-the-gun executives (Jean-Marie Messier, Michael Ovitz) to stars in rehab (Robert Downey Jr., Matthew Perry) to people who suddenly turned celebs because of their problems (Lizzie Grubman).

Allan Mayer heads entertainment for Sitrick & Co., perhaps Hollywood’s most prominent crisis specialists. In the five years since he started Sitrick’s entertainment practice, the company has more than doubled in size, with more than 40 masters of disaster (many culled from journalism) to smooth things out.

Publicists are also giving advice to companies in crisis. Should the AOL be taken off Time Warner? Should Steve Case be removed as chairman of that embattled company, as pundits propose? Would a crisis-PR pro advocate all this?

Corporations of all kinds are tapping crisis teams from Sitrick, Burson-Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton, among others, for bankruptcies and mergers, not to mention the legal woes of many formerly high-flying celebrity CEOs. And studios are hiring them to head off the bad word of mouth on their prickly pics (everything from “Waterworld” to “Pluto Nash”).

This pressure-cooker environment demands a radically different approach from standard PR, as studio and entertainment PR execs readily acknowledge. With that experience comes a big bill: Specialists are paid as much as a top-flight litigation attorney, earning hundreds of dollars an hour to dive in on an emerging scandal.

It’s impossible to contain a scandal anymore — gone are the days when a studio could conceal an illegitimate child — but PR firms can try to keep a lid on things. Scandals involving Halle Berry, Hugh Grant and Eddie Murphy were handled quickly, and career damage was minimal.

“You try to create the illusion that these problems disappear on their own — which of course is not true,” says one crisis-PR pro.

PR mavens give high marks to praisers such as Sitrick, Wolf and Paul Bloch (who shepherded Murphy through his transvestite limo passenger mess). And people routinely point to Howard J. Rubenstein, who made his name in the scandal biz.

For decades, Rubenstein has been the go-to guy in troubled times for New York celebs of all sorts. He was called in, for instance, when Gotham publicity princess Grubman plowed her SUV into bystanders at a nightclub. In the resulting media glare, Rubenstein toned Grubman’s wardrobe from stern black to soft pastels, and steered reporters’ attention toward Grubman party pal, bad-girl actress Tara Reid.

But in many cases, the crisis does not involve wrongdoing. When Michael J. Fox and Montel Williams revealed their battles with Parkinson’s and MS, respectively, they relied on their PR companies during the media onslaught. Baker Winokur Ryder, a 25-year-old PR behemoth, handled “Felicity” scribe Riley Weston when it was discovered that she’d lied about her age to get the work; BWR turned the revelation into a campaign against ageism in Hollywood. BWR also repped Center for Science in the Public Interest in its grassroots movement vs. food additive Olestra.

It may be no accident that two of the company’s partners, Larry Winokur and Paul Baker, have law degrees. Legal matters are far more difficult than “easy” problems like sexual hijinks or a trip to rehab. Lawyers give advice to their clients that often contradicts the press agent’s.

Lawyers never want a client to speak publicly, for fear it will complicate the defense. But silence implies guilt in the public’s mind, corroding a star’s support and hamstringing any subsequent career. Ryder’s problems have festered for months over a situation some observers say should have been settled in hours. Now her handlers will have to spend months repairing her badly damaged rep.

“You have a need to look good as well as be good,” says Frank Mankiewicz, Hill & Knowlton’s vice chairman and top crisis manager.

A battle with a lawyer is only one problem for a crisis pro. Recalcitrant or headstrong clients may refuse to cooperate. And the media often refuses to be steered. Publicists no longer have control over what’s being written, seldom have relationships with the hard-news reporters covering a controversy and typically have little time to react.

“There’s less time to tell the story, little time to check facts. The news becomes very fragmented and hasty,” says Mankiewicz. He regularly uses his many family ties to Hollywood (his father co-wrote “Citizen Kane”; his uncle Joseph was a prolific director) when dealing with crises.

When Berry was accused of hit and run, Mayer — former editor of Buzz magazine — set up a war room to quickly answer allegations seeping out of the West Hollywood sheriff’s station, where deputies friendly to Berry’s ex-husband, baseball slugger David Justice, were happily feeding info to the press. The war room’s main goal was to answer every allegation before the day’s news cycle ended, making sure Berry’s side was heard.

The rise of crisis PR marks how much Hollywood has changed since the studio system fell apart in the middle of the last century.

Before then, actors were effectively a studio’s property. Told what they would act in, how they would dress and where they would go, they also relied on the studio to handle scandals.

“Every studio had a powerful person whose job was to know everyone there was to know in these matters,” says producer A.C. Lyles, who spent 14 of his 74-year Paramount career handling publicity.

MGM had the dean of fixers, Howard Strickling, who routinely cleaned up after bad-boys Clark Gable and Robert Taylor. Little tricks like providing studio talent for the Culver City police and fireman’s balls ensured cooperation when he needed official discretion over a star’s arrest.

At Fox, Harry Brand kept noise about his naughty charges quiet thanks to his family ties: His brother was a judge; his wife Sybil was so tight with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept. that it named the women’s jail after her.

Brand also gave radio commentator Walter Winchell office space on the Fox lot for his Hollywood “legman,” the kind of quid pro quo that ensured cooperation on delicate stories, Lyles says. “It wasn’t that the studios did anything illegal,” Lyles insists. “They didn’t pay bribes. They just used friendship when they needed some help.”

Often that meant getting police to release little or no information, and getting big-name reporters to underplay smaller indiscretions.

Lyles had close ties with the two biggest gossip columnists in town. He arranged a studio watchman’s job for the father of Louella Parsons’ secretary. And his friendship with Hedda Hopper’s chauffeur gave him a back channel to her ear when he needed a favor.

“Those days are gone,” says an exec at one big entertainment PR firm. “Studios don’t want to touch things like this now.”

Nowadays, studios have other concerns. Recently, the Hollywood majors have begun hiring crisis specialists to manage controversies that might damage a film’s box office (or awards) potential.

“Even on a movie like ‘Spy Game,’ we were brought in after 9/11 to help them deal with questions about the terrorism stuff,” says Mayer.

Universal hired Sitrick for “A Beautiful Mind” before shooting was even done and kept the company on nearly full time for the six months leading up to Oscar balloting.

Spotting possible problems was easy: The screenplay dropped some facts found in Sylvia Nasar’s biography of John Nash. “We knew, going through the book, what people were likely to jump on,” Mayer says. “The main thing is to anticipate where attacks will come from. In some cases, you can defend against them by making the point yourself. You can also prepare by lining up all the experts ahead of time.”

Mankiewicz points to his back-door intervention for a “prominent East Coast law firm” that was to be featured in a bad light in a recent movie that he declines to name.

His Hollywood connections helped him set up meetings with the pic’s producers, where he repeatedly and successfully argued to soften the firm’s portrayal. The meetings worked — the kind of little-noticed outcome that is often the best possible result.

“The interesting thing about what we do,” says Mayer, “is that the biggest successes are the things where it’s about what doesn’t happen.”

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