Globes PR Chief Said HFPA Must End ‘Unsavory’ Dealings

In February letter leaked to TheWrap, PR man accused organization president of firing him after he took issue with the HFPA's “questionable business practices”

EXCLUSIVE

On the eve of the Golden Globe nominations, TheWrap has obtained a letter in which the PR chief for the awards accuses the Hollywood Foreign Press Association of "unsavory business practices." 

Michael Russell sent a scathing letter to organization president Philip Berk a month before announcing in March that he was leaving his long-held post as the publicist for the HFPA. In the letter he accused Berk of firing him after Russell took issue with what he described as "questionable business practices."

Not addressing these concerns, Russell had warned Berk, would imperil the lucrative Golden Globes telecast, which airs on NBC, as well as the "legitimacy and integrity" of the organization itself.

The letter was sent to TheWrap just days before the HFPA announces the Golden Globe nominations on Dec. 14.

Reached by TheWrap Saturday, Russell described the letter as "private correspondence between myself and a client" and declined to comment further.

He would not further describe the business practices he characterized in his letter as "unsavory" and "questionable."

UPDATED: Berk responded with the following statement on Sunday morning — "It's clear that these undocumented allegations are false, and no more than the veiled and unfounded threats of a disgruntled former consultant. While we appreciate their service for 17 years, it's unfortunate that they chose to react in such an unprofessional manner. As we wrote Michael Russell 10 months ago, we do not engage in the kind of practices he attributes to the association, and are only reassured of our decision not to continue the relationship."

Having served as the public relations firm for the HFPA and its signature awards show, the Golden Globes, for 17 years, Russell's abrupt depature created a lot of questions when it was announced in March.

At the time Russell said vaguely that the show had become too much work and the group would not remunerate him properly.

But the letter from Russell to Berk (pictured right), dated Feb. 23, and obtained by TheWrap Saturday, Russell wrote that he had earlier brought a number of "questionable business practices of the HFPA" directly to Berk's attention.

Instead of addressing these unspecificed concerns, however, Russell wrote that Berk had HFPA's lawyers "send us the letter severing all ties and hopefully silencing us."

Among a litany of other accusations, Russell also demanded an apology from Berk, noting that HFPA board members had made disparaging remarks about the Michael Russell Group (it's unclear as to whether he ever received that apology).

Beyond unspecified accusations of bad business practices, Russell took wide aim at Berk's tenure as HFPA president.

"Of all people, you know how hard we had to work especially since there was frequent drama as you clashed needlessly and repeatedly with HFPA members, (Globes producer Dick Clark Productions), NBC, Chrysler, and members of the media," he wrote.

Russell added: “This is the fifth year I have handled PR for the HFPA and Golden Globes with you as president, and this year was by far the worst as your conduct climbed to a new outrageous level."

Also among the litany of accusations in the letter:

>> Russell said Berk reneged on the promise of 15 percent commission after the Michael Russell Group brokered a $100,000 Globes sponsorship deal with Glaceau Smart Water. Russell also said his firm wasn’t compensated with commission after brokering two free pages of L.A. Times advertising worth $120,000.

>> Russell accused Berk of clashing with German Israeli HFPA member Yoram Kahana in an attempt to “take back” a $100,000 grant that the HFPA membership body had earlier decided, by vote, be given to the L.A. County Museum of Art's struggling music program.

>> He said Berk angered DreamWorks by announcing Steven Spielberg as a Golden Globes presenter without clearing it with the filmmaker/mogul’s publicist first.

>> Russell accused Berk of blasting Variety executive editor Steven Gaydos via an email. “‘You wrote, ‘They don’t do us any favors, we give them LOADS of advertising.'"

The HFPA is a small and politics-riven group that often airs its dirty laundry in public. And Berk is hardly a non-controversial president. He once sparked a celebrity dust-up after goosing actor Brendan Fraser at one of their events and had to formally apologize.

Berk has faced heat in recent months beyond Russell's letter.

In April, for example, he was accused by another member of abuse of office for "circulating disparaging and damaging falsehoods about me," wrote Patricia Danaher.

Read also: War at HFPA: Danaher Accuses Berk of 'Abuse of Office'.

Though the Golden Globes are a lucrative annual event, they are voted on by only 81 active members of the HFPA. That compares to about 6,000 Academy members who vote on the Oscars.

Here is Russell's letter:

February 23, 2010

Philip Berk

Hollywood Foreign Press Association

Phil,

I’m sure you’ll understand my disappointment and distress at receiving the fax from your counsel Joseph Calabrese at O’Melveny and Myers LLP informing me of the decision not to renew our contract in connection with the HFPA/Golden Globe Awards after 17 years of dedicated service and a public relations campaign that the industry and media have hailed unanimously.  We were an integral part in this year’s very successful campaign that resulted in a huge 14% increase in national viewership on NBC.  The amount of media coverage we generated was the biggest ever, including such effective publicity activities as the announcement of Ricky Gervais as this year’s host (although it was my idea,  I was happy to let you take credit for it) and the first Young Hollywood party in which Miss Golden Globe was crowned.  And there was an abundance of effective and innovative promotional successes we initiated including the deal we negotiated with Lynne Segall at the Los Angeles Times that resulted in two free page ads (worth in excess of $120,000) and a national online campaign in the Tribune network of websites.  We also initiated a $100,000 Glaceau/Smart water sponsorship for which you promised us a 15% commission only to later inform us that the membership nixed the commission.

Of all people, you know how hard we had to work especially since there was frequent drama as you clashed needlessly and repeatedly with HFPA members, DCP, NBC, Chrysler, and members of the media.  This is the fifth year I have handled PR for the HFPA and Golden Globes with you as President and this year was by far the worst as your conduct climbed to a new outrageous level.  There were non-stop battles as you clashed with Yoram in the hope you could figure out a way to take back the $100,000 grant that the HFPA membership had voted to save LACMA’s film program, incurred the anger of DreamWorks when you incorrectly announced that Steven Spielberg would be a presenter at the Golden Globe Awards telecast, without ever clearing it with his publicist, argued incessantly with Orly and Barry about a number of issues including the HFPA getting a larger percentage of the E! and TV Guide Channel TV pre-show deals, to name just a few.  And don’t forget all the embarrassments with the media including the time you sent editor Steve Gaydos an email blasting Variety (you wrote “They don’t do us any favors, we give them LOADS of advertising”) or had Frances Schoenberger send Lynne Segall a barrage of emails demanding a suitable explanation for the LA Times promo deal (Frances wrote “Phil and co are wondering why 5 tickets – $100,000”).  Equally distressing was the hard time you gave the wonderful Laurie Bernhard who so beautifully guided the HFPA in matters of philanthropy.  I did my best to minimize the fallout from your disruptive activity.

And what was all the bizarre hysteria about Chrysler and the 501 ( c)(3) organization “Stars For A Cause”?  It was your decision to place the Chrysler 300 on the Red Carpet at the Globes for all the celebrities to sign.  And then you were furious that “Stars For A Cause” was involved and demanded that Chrysler no longer promote the HFPA’s association with the fundraiser auction that last Saturday successfully resulted in $110,000 being donated to the American Red Cross for their Haiti relief efforts (100% of the proceeds going to the Red Cross organization) following an appearance of the car on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”  You had full knowledge that we have worked with SFAC on well-publicized charity campaigns at Golden Globe events since 2007.  You publically defamed the president of Stars for a Cause, a noted attorney and judge, you defamed the charity, and you made disparaging statements about both me and Mr. LoCascio.  You then circulated false statements to the president of Chrysler, their executive staff, and many others.  There is absolutely no excuse for such false and damaging behavior on your part that has exposed you and the HFPA to substantial damages.  When I recently pointed out how you put the HFPA in jeopardy with your defamations, you simply ignored me.

For 17 years we have brought you and former presidents a wealth of advice to boost the integrity and credibility of the organization. As you well know, there are a number of questionable business practices of the HFPA which we have brought directly to your attention this year that need to be changed or they would imperil both the telecast and the legitimacy and integrity of the organization if the news ever leaks out.  When I brought these questionable business practices to your attention in the hope they would be changed, you clearly did not seem to be motivated to make any corrective changes.  It is apparent that our discussions of the association’s unsavory business dealings have prompted you to order your counsel to send us the letter severing all ties and hopefully silence us.

To add insult to injury, we have been recently alerted by members of the organization that members of the board have  made disparaging remarks about us and are in the process of trying to damage our reputations.  Our concerns were amplified by Friday’s incredibly insensitive fax.  Since we have worked so closely with the HFPA for the past 17 years and are obviously an integral part of the organization, we deserved the courtesy to discuss the situation with you and the board in person.

Within 48 hours we demand a formal letter of apology and for all inappropriate and defamatory communications to cease.  We want your written assurance that a mutually agreed upon press release informing the entertainment industry and the media of The Michael Russell Group’s departure will be issued at the appropriate agreed-upon time.

We have done a superb job for the HFPA for the past 17 years.  The letter to us without a phone call or meeting and your defamatory conduct is indicative of the dysfunctional, mean-spirited behavior that has plagued the association for many years.

Sincerely, Michael Russell

cc: Jorge Camara. Meher Tatna