The Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s diversity and PR consultants quit after a disastrous meeting with Time’s Up and publicity leaders
The last couple of months have been a disaster for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the group that hands out the annual Golden Globe Awards — and the crisis is getting worse, not better. After diversity and PR experts hired just weeks ago to help the group fix systemic problems of racism and corruption quit on Monday, and a racist email leaked from a former head of the group, what is left for the HFPA to do?
“You can’t just put Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” Evan Nierman, founder and CEO of crisis PR firm Red Banyan, told TheWrap. “They are going to have to do surgery, and they are going to have to do a lot of rehabilitation. Half measures aren’t going to work. They are going to have to rethink every aspect of their organization if they want to remain relevant and reputable. Anything else is destined for failure.”
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Multiple individuals within the organization and outside experts told TheWrap the group needs to start taking its problems seriously and come up with a substantive plan, rather than the window dressing of its recent approach in hiring experts and issuing vague statements promising reform down the road. If the group and its award show is to survive, they said, the group needs to bring in new leadership, change the group’s bylaws and fundamentally reconsider its reason for being.
“The HFPA is in desperate need of a complete revamp,” one HFPA member, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, told TheWrap. “It needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. We need an outside ethical committee and a president recruited from the outside. Our leadership does not want to change and is obviously not equipped to handle a crisis of this magnitude.”
Concrete measures toward change could include the Time’s Up recommendation to fire the current board and make all 87 HFPA members resign and reapply. The list of the group’s demands was effectively a full-scale dismantling of the HFPA and the Globes as they exist today. But at the moment, the group appears to be lacking leadership empowered to make change, hampered among other things by internal bylaws that require the approval of the entire group to institute reforms.
“This is all very sad,” another longtime HFPA member told TheWrap. “It’s true, the HFPA has to change. We’ve known that for years. But we adapted too slowly to changes in the industry. The industry is changing and we could not keep up.”
An individual familiar with the workings of the group added, “It’s not the board that makes decisions. Every decision gets voted on by the full membership. It’s the prisoners running the prison. You can’t have an organization run by 85 people.”
That organizational structure has exacerbated the crisis for the group, insiders said. While pledging to reform, HFPA leaders have failed to develop a viable strategy to move forward beyond a pledge to add at least 13 Black members, and instead hired experts without showing any willingness to adopt their recommendations. A deadline of May 6 looms when the group had promised to deliver a set of reforms and a timetable to achieve them.
“They haven’t done anything except what feels very performative,” the insider added.
The HFPA board canceled a planned March 25 meeting with top Hollywood publicists, which would have included Time’s Up CEO Tina Tchen, as well as a separate scheduled meeting with GLAAD, according to a knowledgeable insider.
Chen, in a statement to TheWrap, said, “So far, we have yet to see any changes. In fact, recent actions within HFPA’s membership since the last Golden Globes are disconcerting. HFPA’s May 6 deadline to unveil their promised changes is fast approaching. The clock is ticking.”
A spokesperson for the HFPA did not respond to requests for comment about those canceled meetings, but did tell TheWrap in a statement: “We remain committed to transformational change, and will continue that process in order to restore confidence in the HFPA.”
Mark Macias, head of Macias PR, a global public-relations firm, said that if the HFPA had followed Time’s Up’s recommendations it would “bring in more people, so you are taking the power away from a few” and would allow the organization to look at the situation through a different lens.
But, thus far, the group has continued to court scandal since a February L.A. Times exposé that outlines millions of dollars in payments sent to members and the fact that none of the organization’s 87 members are Black. Since then, the HFPA has not convinced other Hollywood organizations that it understands what is at stake: the group’s very survival, along with the awards show that the entire industry leverages to its benefit.
The group had hired Shaun Harper, a professor at USC and respected expert on inclusion, to serve as a diversity adviser, and also tapped crisis PR expert Judy Smith as an adviser. The announcement gave hope to many in the industry that the HFPA was taking the issues seriously. But both advisers suddenly quit on Tuesday after being confronted with the details of the HFPA’s problems at an explosive meeting with Tchen, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, lawyer Nina Shaw and 10 heads of Hollywood publicity firms on Tuesday.
Attendees at the meeting said that Harper was confronted by multiple high-powered attendees, including several Black women, condemning his own recommendation to add at least 13 Black HFPA members by the end of this year, the proportion of African Americans in the country. “There were a lot of people on that call who said 13% of the U.S. population is a ‘racist quota,'” one attendee said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
An individual familiar with Harper’s thinking said that he took “very personally” the criticism about adding 13 Black members, which the critics apparently did not know was his idea. “He worried about his reputation/ability to get future work given the power of the women in the room and concern his relationships would be ruined,” this individual wrote to TheWrap. “He was very intimidated by the room in general.”
According to the second insider, Harper was “embarrassed” that he didn’t know the depths of the systemic racism inherent within the HFPA. “He was definitely shook by what he learned,” the insider said.
In his resignation letter, Harper wrote as much: “Having now learned more about the Association’s deep systemic and reputational challenges, I no longer have confidence in our ability to collaboratively deliver the transformational change that the industry and the people in it whom I deeply respect are demanding of you. My serious, unwavering commitment to the racial and gender equity issues on which I work every day make it impossible for me to continue serving in a consulting capacity with the HFPA.”
Or course, criticism of the HFPA and its lack of diversity isn’t new. As far back as 2013, TheWrap reported that a Black applicant from the U.K. was rejected by an overwhelming vote. However, observers say the recent Black Lives Matter movement has made the focus on the lack of Black members impossible to ignore in 2021.
But the abrupt exit of Harper and Smith do not bode well for an organization already facing a PR crisis and organizational challenges. “For Judy and Shaun to resign, to me that says they didn’t think they could fix it and they thought that this wasn’t something within their power and that’s especially bad because Shaun is everything you want,” Macias said. “For him to walk away, that’s going to create another problem for the organization, because who is going to get in there? There’s gotta be deeper stuff that Shaun saw.”
Harper and Smith did not respond to TheWrap’s requests for comment.
For many, diversifying the membership is only the first step to reform. Nierman said the group also needs to hire high-credibility people for positions of authority and decision-making, fresh faces to represent the organization publicly and a platform for new members to talk about how the institution can reinvent itself.
“You need to have a plan for diversity — that’s not PR, that’s just a good thing to do. Until they fix that problem, any other PR pushing an investigation or ousting past presidents, that doesn’t solve the overall problem,” Macias said. “Shaun probably just heard excuses from them and said, ‘If you don’t want to take action, then I can’t help you.'”
Finding talent to join a troubled organization may be a challenge, but many see it as the clearest path forward. “If they had a well-respected person of color who took over, that would go a long way. If they were to throw out this arbitrary 13 number and instead commit to a large scale inclusivity effort, that would make a difference,” Nierman said. “I think you’re going to have to have someone step up as a fresh new face of the organization. You can’t get worse than an old white South African man. It would be hard-pressed to find someone who would be a worse representative of an organization that’s evolving with the times. More promises by white people are not going to be what they need.”
Nierman was referring to Philip Berk, the 88-year-old former HFPA president and South Africa native who was expelled from the organization on Tuesday after the outcry over a leaked email recently sent to members with a post describing Black Lives Matter as a “hate movement.”
Hollywood insiders are divided on whether the HFPA can find a path forward from its current crisis, especially after the many self-inflicted wounds to its reputation.
“Sometimes it takes a full-blown disaster in order to create the recognition and the willingness to make fundamental change,” Nierman said. “They had a problem, they hired experts to guide them through it and then the problem worsened, but to me it’s not an altogether bad thing. As an organization, what they’ve learned is that we have a systemic problem. It’s not that we can make public statements about it and hope that everyone will move on, they have a deep-seated issue and now they can’t run from it. To me, it’s a great opportunity — Either evolve or die.”
But an individual who works closely with the group was less sanguine: “The organization is over. If they want to survive they need to make the changes necessary.”