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Where’s the Handlers When We Need Them?

If I see one more PR-spun update on post-breakup Lindsay Lohan, I think my eyeballs will melt. We're being treated daily to endless publicity "sources" and "friends" advancing the tale of the scrappy starlet courageously coping with singledom. Lohan's embarrassed by her ex's changed locks and restraining orders! She's only drinking water at the Chateau […]

If I see one more PR-spun update on post-breakup Lindsay Lohan, I think my eyeballs will melt.

We're being treated daily to endless publicity "sources" and "friends" advancing the tale of the scrappy starlet courageously coping with singledom. Lohan's embarrassed by her ex's changed locks and restraining orders! She's only drinking water at the Chateau Marmont! She's chosen a new tattoo! (Which apparently, following in the footsteps of Rihanna, is this year's version of the ceremonial boob microlift or Restylane lips that used to mark romantic liberation.)

All this was capped off by Lohan's awkward eHarmony spoof on Funny or Die. Picture the PR brain-trust gathering where this idea was generated — likely fueled by something stronger than water — and won consensus. Hey, now that we've planted all those items and photo ops, why not make a video? Can we suggest that those meltdowns in DJ booths from coast to coast were just good fun? Can we maybe improve her popularity in flyover states by claiming she's a switch-hitter? And can we get her to mumble through a litany of every problem she's had, including many that the video's 521,00-and-counting viewers probably forgot, in 90 seconds?

Here's my question: Where's her handler in all this? Not a fizzy personal publicist or opportunistic manager, but a wise counselor … a Tom Hagen … who's focused on the longevity of Lohan's career and, let's hope, her life?

"Handler" is a pretty dirty word in Hollywood. It evokes sinister cover-ups of sexual orientation, divorces and Madonna adoptions. But a Great Handler is a good thing.

High-profile talent experience what we all do: they get pissed off, have feelings hurt, want attention, hook up with the wrong people, make stupid choices. They just do it under a 24/7 spotlight.

A GH is, to steal how TV programmers describe Oprah's appeal to the masses, the smartest friend in the group. It's the person who would've ensured that Gisele Bundchen had a better answer for the inevitable Vanity Fair question about Tom Brady's baby mama … instead of describing actress Bridget Moynahan as a uterus-for-rent. Who reminds the client to recognize — and thank — the reporter who's attended his 11 other movie junkets and written glowing features. And to sympathize over, then pull the plug on, an angry e-mail draft response to a website, and come up with a joke for it instead.

So I've got two theories about why GHs seem to be in short supply. The perennial one is that most publicists and managers are guns-for-hire focused only on momentary results, the perks and the fees. But I believe it's something deeper: that the times have drastically evolved but the handlers' strategies and skill sets haven't.

The days of Pat Kingsley and her imitators dictating covers and journalist assignments are ancient history. TMZ, Twitter and busboys with cellphone cameras require a different kind of navigation — one that doesn't simply play with all the tools, but uses them wisely. Which means that while you can easily produce a Funny or Die video reaching the world, it doesn't mean that you should.  

I don't profess to be a GH. But I'm known for having a finely-tuned bullshit meter, common sense and a strong backbone to match. I was also a headstrong, curious, 22-year-old fond of clubs, cocktails and sketchy guys, so I know we're a fairly pouty bunch to wrangle. But it's not just the naïve twentysomethings who need a GH.

Not long ago, a TV personality beloved for her brains, wholesomeness and poise wanted my vote. We'd worked together years earlier, struck up a friendship and stayed in touch. She was calling because after being very publicly dumped from a hosting gig a while back, she'd just gotten hired to front a copycat show on a competing network.

The revenge was sweet and the irony wouldn't be lost on the media or the public. So she and a few friends had come up with what they'd unanimously decided was the perfect subtly bitchy response for the predictable question. And she figured it was worth asking me, too. I heard her out and then answered as only a GH would: "Are you f-ing nuts?"

When the announcement went out the next day and she did all the usual entertainment outlet interviews, she said something quotably funny but gracious about enjoying the genre and the opportunity to return to it in a new way. It was, the critics noted, just the kind of classy response you'd always expect from her.

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.