Damage control is key in era of instant media

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In an ever-changing media landscape, personal publicists are more crucial yet more irrelevant than ever.

The PR maven was once a necessity for only the biggest stars, but nowadays everyone from the third lead on a CW series to a tentpole writer pays the going rate of $4,000 per month to the town’s phalanx of PR pros.

That’s a bargain, given the value of savvy press management in the era of TMZ, Perez Hilton, Page Six and the half-dozen weekly glossies that increasingly dictate the national conversation. As the public’s appetite for Hollywood gossip booms, publicists find themselves in 24/7 fix-it mode.

On the other hand, some celebs — including Angelina Jolie and Robert Pattinson — question the necessity of flacks: With a growing number of people who “report” details without ever verifying their accuracy, many Tinseltown celebs and/or publicists have decided it’s impossible to counter, so they simply ignore the gossipmongers.

In contrast with the ignore-it-and-it-will-go-away publicists, 42 West, founded by PMK defector Leslee Dart, and Kelly Bush’s ID are among the newish agencies that successfully employ a proactive approach.

“The biggest change we’ve seen in the past 18 months — and it began even before that — is the speed at which everything happens,” says Bush. “If you are not ahead of the story, the blog post or the tabloid break, you can’t be effective.”

Those two firms are examples of how the nature of personal PR representation has changed. The once-mighty PMK endured 2010′s biggest shakeups when it lost power publicists Robin Baum, Simon Halls, Stephen Huvane, Melissa Kates and Jennifer Allen.

Meanwhile, 42 West and ID have weathered the tumultuous period by stemming staff erosion and staying true to their brands. Both are bicoastal, with ID dominating in Los Angeles (with such talent as Sean Penn, Ben Stiller, Natalie Portman and Christopher Nolan and brands like Neutrogena and Nintendo), while 42 West reigns in Gotham with a client list that includes Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Lady Gaga.

Perhaps their biggest success can be measured by the number of tabloid covers their clients don’t grace. Even onetime tabloid mainstay Britney Spears, who is repped by 42 West’s Holly Shakoor, now garners less ink in the glossies than she did two years ago. That seems to be the result of a carefully crafted media plan.

“As recently as five years ago, each agency had its own unique culture,” notes a longtime agency veteran. “The old adage was, ‘You could spot a PMK girl walking down the street.’ The era of the big unified agency is over. It’s not about the agency anymore. It’s about the individual publicists and their client lists.”

In the heyday of the Hollywood studios in the 1920s-50s, inhouse PR mavens ruled; they eventually gave way to outside personal publicists, who invented positive stories about clients, countered negative ones and issued press releases. These personal publicists were the foundation of many PR agencies, such as Rogers & Cowan. The publicist would travel the globe to accompany the star; now, the larger agencies earn significantly higher income from corporate clients, who can easily run up six-figure monthly tabs.

Only a decade ago, a PR maven wooed a few dozen journalists. The Pat Kingsleys of the world had relationships, they had leverage. But the days of the controlling publicist are gone. Now, instead of a few important news outlets, there are hundreds. In an era of “gotcha!” journalism, even mainstream publications enjoy taking stars down a peg or two, like the L.A. Times’ recent piece advising Leonardo DiCaprio to rethink his career path, under the headline “Lighten up, Leo.”

Furthermore, not everyone wants to verify facts about a celeb’s personal or professional moves. Many journalists call the publicist to say “I’m running with this story, just thought I’d give you a heads up” — if they even do that.

And the old strategy of trying to control negative stories is often futile. That may be why some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Jolie and Brad Pitt, are eschewing the PR guru in favor of a trusted family member.

Amid these frustrations, the publicist is increasingly asked to hold the hands of stars who fear their shelf-life is limited due to the public’s ever-increasing entertainment options. And publicists are getting more nervous about booking a star for a talkshow or an interview, because if something goes wrong, it makes them all look bad.

So the bottom line is that stars want their publicist to work harder, and often for less money. “There is a disconnect between the value of good publicity and what we are paid and how we are perceived,” explains Bush.

Amid increasing agency fragmentation, one emerging trend finds celebs playing an exiting publicist against their former firm, with the star demanding (and sometimes getting) free months of PR in exchange for staying with the firm.

“That sets a bad precedent. It’s like negotiating with a terrorist,” quips one longtime publicist.

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