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Hollywood story: The PR pro behind the Academy Awards


February 25, 2011

It’s less than a week before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its nominations for the 2011 Academy Awards. Director of Communications Leslie Unger is busy working on scripts, technical aspects and pre-production for the livestream on Jan. 25.

The LA native has worked for the Academy since the inception of the communications department in 1992. Prior to this, she earned a bachelor’s degree from California State – Fullerton, worked for the County of Los Angeles in the personnel and public affairs division, and then served as an assistant account executive at Ruder Finn, which represented the Academy for years.

Unger oversees a team who plans and executes all components of the Academy Awards publicity campaign — before, during and after the event (which takes place on Sunday). She’s also in charge of the press credentialing process; the nominations announcement and luncheon; ongoing development and maintenance of the Academy’s website, publications, membership and crisis management plans; as well as publicity for other Academy programs, outreach activities and events and exhibitions during the year.  — Amy Jacques

Did you always like movies as a child?

As a child, my family and I would occasionally go to the movies. In high school, I wanted to work in public relations, but even continuing through college, I wasn’t sure what area I wanted to focus on — [but] I knew I didn’t want to work in entertainment. [Laughs.] I didn’t want to work at a movie studio, a television network or production company. I didn’t want to be somebody’s personal representative.  The Academy is more of a cultural institution — [so] I’ve been true to myself. [Laughs.]

How has outreach for the Academy Awards show developed?

As the media landscape changes, we’ve had to become more savvy and sophisticated about how we publicize [and] market the show — sending out press releases and relying on traditional media to communicate the information to the public is still something we do, but it is [not] the only thing we do.  We are active in social media. We have established specific relationships with key media outlets that we feel benefit us — and with whom we can work for their benefit.

How has the Academy Awards show remained a leading brand with other competing awards shows?

We expend a lot of time and energy in protecting our brand, in how we associate ourselves with other entities.  We are incredibly protective of the statuette as an icon that represents this organization.  We are active legally in protecting that mark, and what it means.  The great integrity with which the Academy has conducted itself in terms of the voting — and everything surrounding [the] organization — means something to people and it’s something they have confidence in. In recent years, we have been trying to help the public understand who we are as an organization.  And filmmakers voting to select awards means something — people who are the best at doing what they do, telling the world what they thought was the best of the year.  As we communicate that to the next generations, it helps us maintain the brand and our relevance.

For years, people have been fascinated by the show, and have viewing parties for this and for the Super Bowl.  Why is it such a cultural phenomenon?

People love to see movie stars. People love to be surprised. People love to experience things that are truly exciting.  And, the Oscar show — even not at its best moments — still provides a level of entertainment. It’s unique among other awards shows, and people grow up with it.  They pass their love down through children and the next generation, and it continues to grow and build.  Even if they’ve watched another awards show, they still want to watch ours to see who wins the really big award.

Is it hard to reach certain demographics today with social media and real-time news?

Social media gives us more opportunities to reach demographics that may not have been traditionally those most inclined to be Oscar fans. Does absolutely everybody love the Oscars and watch the show? No, and we accept that and try to grow our audience in new demographics. But the proliferation of the media, media types and media platforms gives us opportunities to try to reach those people in more successful [ways] than before.

How do you decide who gets press credentials?

We get applications from media outlets all over the world.  This year, we got somewhere in the neighborhood of 800. Obviously, we have limited space.  We’re trying to make sure the event is reaching the widest possible audience, and the most diverse audience. We look at who has great circulation, great presence and followers on the Internet. We’re also [making] sure that specific audiences are being served. We make sure that we have representation of media from all of the countries that have a film competing in the foreign-language category.

We also try to provide coverage opportunities leading up to the show so that those we can’t accommodate on the night of the event have an opportunity to serve their audiences.

How far in advance do you start planning the awards show?

There’s some level of planning going on all year. Movies are released every week.  There are paperwork requirements and work related to the awards process all year long.  We’re constantly looking at the way we do things from the PR side in terms of credentialing [and] logistical support we provide to media.  After each year’s show, there are committees that meet to talk about what worked, what didn’t work.  The show gets more of a focus once the producers are onboard. This year, that happened early for us, which was great.

Where are you and what are you doing on awards night?

I’m all over the place. During guest arrivals, I am on the red carpet making sure that the flow of the event is running smoothly, that the media who have been credentialed are doing what they’re supposed to — adhering to rules and policies. I’m working with our security team, the fire department, making sure that people are getting into the theater.

Once the show starts, I’m primarily in press areas, where we have photographers and reporters credentialed.  There’s always a fire to be put out, an ego to be smoothed. I’m running around doing all of that, [which] continues through the Governor’s Ball, the Academy’s official post-ceremony celebration. It’s a long day and night — a lot of walking is involved. [Laughs.]

After the event, when do you decide to respond to criticisms about the show or the Academy?

Our crisis plans have more to do with physical crises that might take place relative to the event. No matter what kind of show we produce, there will always be somebody who doesn’t like it, and that’s fine.  We don’t feel the need to respond to every criticism of us, whether it’s a criticism of the organization or of the show.  We want to make sure that we are being portrayed accurately.  When the commentary or criticism about the organization or the show crosses the line and is based on wrong information — or assumptions — that is when we step in and correct the record.

What’s your day-to-day job like and how many hours do you work per week?

[Laughs.] This time of year, the hours are in the 10- to 15-range.  There is not a typical day. I am handling media requests, or I’m diverting those to other people on my staff.  We’re revising some of the layout of the arrivals area — the red carpet area. I am involved in that project, making sure that all of the media we’ve made commitments to will have space on the red carpet, that we do have space for them on the red carpet. I oversee about 75 individual budget lines [for] this department’s activities. So, I’m constantly keeping track of numbers.

What advice do you have for professionals who are hoping to follow a similar career path to yours? Do they have to live in LA?

No, arts and entertainment is not limited or exclusive to Los Angeles or New York. Every metropolitan area hopefully has one or more museums, some sort of musical performance entity — an orchestra, a philharmonic or a chamber music group. If people expand their thinking about what arts and entertainment is, there’s tremendous opportunity everywhere.  Arts and entertainment isn’t just what you see on television or in a movie theater. Anything that people do when they’re not working has the potential to be entertainment. Whether that’s going to a concert, a museum or a sidewalk chalk drawing festival, there’s tremendous opportunity all over the country.

Lately, several TV shows have given the public a stereotypical impression of PR people. How can we uphold a positive image and prove that public relations is strategic?

The first thing that everyone can do to enhance the image of the profession is conduct themselves ethically and professionally. We can and should lead by example.  That goes a long way to dispel some of the perceptions that are contrary. If we are an ethical profession, then people see that.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I am part of an organization that is a known and respected brand around the world.  There aren’t a lot of places that can  make that claim. That’s special and motivates me to do the best I can to represent this organization.

Getting to know Leslie Unger

Favorite book? “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand, “Stoner” by John Williams, “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain

Favorite film? “The Wizard of Oz”

Any three dinner guests — past or present? Jerry Garcia, Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson



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