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Sex, Lies, Videotape & Publicity

The Jimmy Kimmel workplace romance story smells like a pre-emptive PR strategy.

That 1997 "Law & Order" story arc about a Hollywood executive’s murder — the one which mocked every L.A. stereotype — was rerun Sunday morning. In it, one character boasts, "Sex is the official hobby of the entertainment industry."

True then, true now.

Just as Lenny and Rey were once again arresting the killer, this morning’s lead on People.com was an "exclusive" about Jimmy Kimmel’s involvement with Molly McNearney, a longtime staffer on his ABC late-night talk show. An item newsworthy enough to bump the Gosselins’ checkbooks and Kourtney Kardashian’s uterus off the magazine’s homepage.

"A source close to the host" not just confirmed the story but offered up a timeline carefully delineating that while McNearney joined the show as an assistant in 2003 and worked her way to co-head writer in May 2008, she and Kimmel didn’t hook up "until a few months ago … after Jimmy and Sarah (Silverman) broke up … Molly and Jimmy both found themselves single, and they clicked."

Was it a Nora Ephron meet-cute moment? Were they at the coffee machine, intently debating whether to book Robert Pattinson or Taylor Lautner, when McNearney whipped off her glasses, shook out her ponytail and Kimmel blurted, "My god, Ms. McNearney, you’re beautiful!"

Maybe not. Especially since rumors of the love match appeared in Gawker.com on July 15, 2008 — two months after her promotion, one day after the Silverman break-up was announced and 15 months ago. A handful of related rumors followed online, including a potential sexual harassment problem with a male writer, but then it all vanished.

Until its resurrection, with much more charm, by People. Call me suspicious, but it sure smells like a pre-emptive PR strategy crafted by various programming, HR and legal types, with a manager or two weighing in and a publicist told to plant it in a celeb-friendly outlet. Possibly ahead of concerns about less-kind media leaks or even worse coming to light about the show, its host and his hormones.

Because thanks to David Letterman and his frat-boy libido, the spotlight’s now on one of the industry’s favorite perks: sex in the workplace. Hollywood is high school with bigger allowances and no curfews. The sex jokes made in monologues and storylines come from experience. And everyone inside knows.

Thinking about the Letterman situation, I couldn’t recall one job where I didn’t have to contend with office sex as a fact of work life — whether as a PR person, manager or employee.

The day after joining one company, I was breathlessly informed by several female staffers that my boss had his mistress on my payroll. Another time, I was loaned out to a company with whom we were partnering on a big project, since everyone knew its SVP/PR position was always held by that CEO’s actress/model girlfriend of the moment. I pitched, she read Vogue.

I haven’t been immune. I once began dating a colleague and despite being in different departments, the company had a strict policy requiring admission of such relationships to your supervisor. I practiced what I’d say to my very paternal, very straitlaced boss and walked in his door … only to learn that one of my funnier coworkers had already told him and added concern that I wasn’t aware the guy was gay (which he wasn’t). Instead of confessing, I was stuck awkwardly explaining my certainty about my new squeeze’s sexual preference.

The entertainment industry isn’t exempt from federal and state employment laws, and every company doubtless has additional albeit vague policies about personal relationships. But it’s an area where we’ve historically tended to more or less look the other way. When pushed — including recently post-Letterman — we’ve attributed such behavior to the fact that we work long hours under enormous stress and pressure to deliver. The problem is, so do coal miners. And In ‘n’ Out employees.

Since the Letterman story broke, several celebrity employment-rights lawyers have broadly hinted that they’re trolling companies for potential sexual harassment cases while tabloid journalists search for the next Stephanie Birkitt. Network, studio and production company executives, including PR people, are wrestling with how to manage high-stakes hook-ups within their own shops and, even more, the potential of legal fallout. Memos requiring attendance at sexual harassment workshops should start appearing. Quiet conversations are likely taking place. And maybe even those fuzzy internal policies are being clarified and acted on.

That’ll be a change as hard to sell as coach-class travel and the end of weekly Evian deliveries.

A few years ago, one show under my watch was an hour drama with a great-looking young ensemble cast that was sporadically thinned out by the producers. One cast member decided his most effective career strategy was to systematically woo every female executive with some influence, a group that apparently included me.

We could always tell the latest attempted target of his affection because she’d briefly reek of the cologne he wore incessantly. His scent vanished from our halls just as it took up permanent residence in the office of one of the show’s six executive producers. Their relationship was common knowledge internally and his character got decent screentime. But when the show started up for the next season, Mr. Drakkar Noir was one of three cast members replaced. When I asked the showrunner why, he said matter of factly, "He just banged the wrong EP."

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.