‘Pain Sponge’: The New Hell of Being PR Chief
‘Last thanked, first blamed’: It’s shoot the messenger as flaks try to manage mercurial CEOs during entertainment’s most difficult era
After a string of bad PR in 2023 that kicked-off with an ill-timed, tone-deaf party in Cannes, was punctuated by a CNN blowup, and ended in a critical article in the New York Times, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav and his recently departed PR chief Nathaniel Brown clearly were not seeing eye-to-eye. Brown, who had been with Zaslav for five years, in fact had been mentioned in the New York Times piece for disagreeing with his boss about the expensive party at the Cannes Film Festival during the Hollywood labor strike. Ouch.
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before Brown joined the conga line of top PR executives who in just the past two years have exited after negative company press. Bigger names include Cory Shields, who left Amazon early last year following blistering press around its Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power failure and questions around Amazon Studios’ leadership; while then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s top comms executive Geoff Morrell was shown the door in 2022 after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis singled out Disney over its flip-flopped stance on the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. He had been in the seat just three months. The salve? Morrell famously received $8 million for his troubles.
Of course, the boss shooting the messenger is nothing new in entertainment. This strategy famously has been employed by studio chiefs for decades when, say, after a movie they greenlit bombed, the marketing chief would suddenly find themselves on the street.
But now, in a world of superstar (and to others, supervillain) eight-figure-a-year CEOs, where quarterly earnings reports are the new tentpole events, it is no longer just the “product” on the line, but the person. And never has an industry’s top echelon — under heavy fire from media all day — been under more scrutiny.
But is it always the flack’s fault when the media puts the boss through the meat grinder?
I canvassed nearly a dozen top communicators in the entertainment world to get their thoughts on what could only be considered one of the worst jobs in Hollywood today.
What does the job actually entail? How much does it pay? Also, insiders describe the dread of being called to the front of the cabin on the corporate plane, how they barter with some reporters, how success is defined today and the warning signs that your days are numbered.
(Note: Few would speak on record for fear of upsetting clients.)