Publicists Agree That Successful Campaigns Require Fast Thinking and Social Media

54th Publicists Guild Awards gather to bestow honors for success in film and television

Thor: Ragnarok Taika Waititi
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Hollywood’s union publicists have their moment in the sun two days before the Oscars at the 54th annual Intl. Cinematographers Guild Publicists Awards luncheon Feb. 24 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

The Publicists Guild, which has about 400 active members and 600 more on inactive status, became part of the ICG in 2002. Though its members spend much of their professional lives seeking publicity for their clients, they themselves remain relatively anonymous outside the confines of the entertainment industry.

But the awards show offers well-deserved recognition to the teams behind the top film and TV campaigns along with the group’s top trophy, the Les Mason award.

Three of the nominees — Barbara Hannegan and Maureen O’Malley of Warner Bros. Pictures Intl., and William Hendley of Walt Disney Studios — are studio publicists. Ernie Malik is a unit publicist, as is Rosalind Jarrett Sepulveda with the Screen Actors Guild awards.

Those are the three groups that comprise the Publicists Guild membership, with studio publicists at about 170 members, followed by 145 members for agency publicists, and about 65 unit publicists.

Members interviewed by Variety say that it’s tough work that demands a willingness to adjust on the fly.

“The key duties of an agency publicist is to craft a client’s image in the best way possible that enhances his or her career,” says Jennifer Allen of Viewpoint. “This means coming up with a workable, yet flexible plan, executing it and refining it as the client’s career progresses.  It demands a working knowledge and personal relationships with key media, decision-makers, key studio, network and production executives, all of whom are necessary to make the plan succeed.”

Viewpoint clients include Matt Damon, Dwayne Johnson, Kristen Stewart, Lily Tomlin, Zac Efron, Kate Mara, Kevin Bacon, and Jesse Eisenberg.

“The most important part of the job is being honest, both with the client, as well as the media and those involved with a particular project,” she says. “Not all things are possible, or even desirable at all times. Having the foresight and ability to select and generate correctly is key. 

The role of a publicist in the general sense hasn’t changed; it’s everything around it that is constantly evolving and it’s our job to not only remain relevant but to progress with the changing times accordingly.”

Malik, who is up for the Les Mason Award after four decades in the job, is finding that working as a unit publicist is more of a challenge than ever because of the explosion of social media.

“The spokes in the wheel have multiplied one-thousand-fold,” he says. “The structure of the job is the same — acting as the eyes and the ears of the studio and its marketing department on the set — but the presence of social has made it far more pro-active. We use Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook. We even did a Facebook Live on the last day of ‘Thor 3.’”

The unit publicists are still tasked with coordinating start of production releases and set visits, plus acting as the go-between for the production company and the media. “The presence of so much social media means that there’s some loss of control,” Malik admits.

Unit publicists are hired on a freelance basis. Malik, who’s based in Chicago, has worked for all the major studios with Warner Bros. and Disney giving him the most gigs. “Sometimes, you have an actor like Bruce Willis, who will ask for you to be the unit publicist,” he notes.

Longtime Universal publicist Hollace Davids agrees that the essence hasn’t changed: maximizing the box office performance of each film. She began at Columbia more than three decades ago, working on 1983’s “The Big Chill.”

“Awards are nice, but box office is the most important thing for us,” she says. “And that requires a clear campaign that can cut through the clutter.”

Davids is particularly proud of the 2015 campaign for Amy Schumer’s comedy “Trainwreck,” which grossed more than $140 million worldwide.

“I think we created a great campaign for her,” she says. “Of course, it was helpful that it’s a very funny film, but she had not been that well known before then.”

Davids stresses that it’s vital for studio publicists to react to changing circumstances, pointing to the death of “Fast and Furious” star Paul Walker prior to the completion of the seventh film in the franchise.

“That was a heart-breaking situation where we had to figure how to deal with the emotions,” she adds. “Now we have to deal with instant communication, so it’s essential for us to keep up. If you’re not part of it, you’re going to get left in the dust.”

(Pictured: “Thor 3”)