'Jake,' 'Power' focus on world of publicists

After decades of working behind the scenes, personal publicists are suddenly being thrust into the spotlight.

ABC’s “Jake in Progress” stars John Stamos as a personal publicist. MTV reality series “Power Girls” chronicles the inner workings of Lizzie Grubman’s praisery. And Hilary de Vries’ comic novel, “So Five Minutes Ago,” centers on the world of PR.

Trouble is, this newfound media glare isn’t the kind of attention publicists want — the kind they can shape.

While personal publicists used to remain in the shadows of their high-profile clients, the Pat Kingsley-Leslee Dart battle at PMK-HBH and Bumble Ward’s shuttering of her praisery got lots of attention in the mainstream press — not for such clients as Quentin Tarantino and Tim Burton but for the publicists themselves.

So, praisers find themselves at a crossroads.

While the attention has made their work — and presumably its value — more transparent, veterans of the trade still have to suck it up, handholding clients (IDPR’s Kelly Bush has been known to literally lead clients like Toby Maguire by the hand along the red carpet), running endless interference in a celeb-hungry media landscape and always craving what everyone in Hollywood wants: the big bucks and a little love.

And their power has been steadily eroding.

Since the 1980s and ’90s, when publicists were arguably at the height of their power thanks to their control of access to clients, the proliferation of celeb-hungry media outlets has changed the ballgame.

Their role evolved from one of image control to image spin, working to rein in stories detrimental to their clients’ interests. After a decade of dictating who would interview the star, who would photograph him and how the story will be angled, journalists have gotten fed up. Now, tabloids and paparazzi make it easy to circumvent the publicist.

To some, the Ward exit is a symbol: Personal publicists are at the crossroads.

“The first thing you learn about being a publicist is that you will be the first one blamed, the last one thanked.”

Says one grizzled vet. “The other thing you learn quickly is that everybody thinks they can do publicity better than the publicist. Publicity results aren’t as tangible as they are for an agent who negotiates a deal.”

More galling to publicists is the fact that some clients announce they don’t want to pay this month because the publicist didn’t do anything. Or they request a lower monthly fee, because their name alone helps the agency attract other clients.

Publicists often feel underpaid. Compared to agents and managers, who get 5% to 10% of a client’s salary, a PR maven can expect, at most, $60,000 a year from each client. Admittedly, with enough clients, that can turn into a six-figure income, but the real money these days is in corporate representation.

Major firms like PMK/HBH, Rogers & Cowan and Bragman Nyman Cafarelli have opted to grow the corporate sides of their businesses, because the retainers are much higher.

“The true money for a PR film won’t ever be made on the red carpet with celebrities, or even by introducing those celebrities to companies,” says Sean Cassidy, prexy of Dan Klores Communications.

Anyone who specializes in personal publicity these days is by definition keeping it small. “Celebrities are more of a one-off,” says Cassidy, who estimates that of the agency’s $17 million in annual billings, 7% is derived directly from celebrity clients.

Still, Simon Halls, a managing director at PMK/HBH, says the rewards outweigh the frustrations.

“You know the fee structure going in, and if anybody sits and compares themselves to others, they will spend a lot of time being frustrated,” he says. “I don’t think any of us feel like the red-headed stepchildren here. We do well financially, even junior publicists. This is not a bad job where people are clamoring to get out. We pay our mortgages and people build nice lives in personal publicity.”

If a celeb’s career isn’t going well, it’s usually the agent or manager who gets the blame. But publicists are held liable for other disappointments. Magazines’ power lists are always ulcer-making; everyone wants to be higher than they are, even if they haven’t had a hit film in years.

And when Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez got smacked with a wave of bad “Gigli” publicity, each hired new teams: He went to Ken Sunshine, she to Alan Nierob, and has since switched again.

But such switches are the exception to the rule. Most superstars stay loyal to their publicists for years, sometimes decades.

Among the many who’ve retained clients are Stan Rosenfield (George Clooney, Robert De Niro and Will Smith); Pat Kingsley (Michael Mann); Nierob (Denzel Washington, Mel Gibson); Brad Cafarelli (Cameron Diaz); Robin Baum (Russell Crowe); Cyndi Guagenti (Brad Pitt); Steven Huvane (Jennifer Aniston). Julie Andrews has been with Gene Schwam since “Mary Poppins” days.

When Hilary Swank accepted her best actress Oscar, she concluded her 2½-minute litany of thanks with a shout-out salute to “Troy Nankin, my best friend and publicist.”

Among Nankin’s accomplishments was a softball “60 Minutes” profile in which Mike Wallace gushed about Swank’s unpretentious warmth, her volunteer work and her CPR attempts to save the life of a dying man — a piece that aired when Oscar voters had ballots in hand.

No wonder Swank was grateful.

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