Hollywood’s Checkered History With D.C. Hires — A Cautionary Tale For WBD’s Bet On Robert Gibbs

David Zaslav can now boast of having a former Press Secretary to the President of the United States among his corporate inner circle. However, even with the trophy of Robert Gibbs now on his shelf, the Warner Bros Discovery CEO may do well to remember the transition from DC to Hollywood has proved full of pitfalls over the years.

“Everyone wants a Dee Dee Myers, nobody wants to end up with a Geoff Morrell,” an industry insider notes in reference to Myers, the top ex-Bill Clinton aide who had a smooth five-year reign at Warner Bros, and the former ABC News correspondent and Pentagon spokesman who flamed out in 2022 after just four contentious months as Disney’s communications boss. “What works in campaigns and in DC, doesn’t always work in L.A.,” the insider added, stressing the pacing and stakes of Hollywood PR moves at a different click than in the corridors of power.

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“You need a softer touch out here.”

A relentless advocate for his boss as Barack Obama’s first press secretary and later a senior advisor for Obama’s 2012 reelection, Gibbs subsequently took on roles as a MSNBC contributor, podcast co-host, consultant, and head of communications for McDonald’s from 2015-2019.

Whether that background can bring Zaslav the good press he craves is as unknown right now, as is where Gibbs will be based for his WBD gig.

One thing is clear: Gibbs has next to no experience in the entertainment industry.

In contrast, before she landed at WB in 2014 and after she exited as the first female White House Press Secretary, Myers served as a consultant and script advisor on The West Wing for the acclaimed Aaron Sorkin series’ seven-season run. In addition to that time in the trenches, Myers, now an aide for California Gov. Gavin Newsom, was also co-host of CNBC’s Equal Time from 1995-1997.

While acknowledging the gap in Gibbs’ CV, one top exec says he still has the chops for his new job. “He may come from politics, but he has real corporate experience, with the right team that outsider perspective could be a real plus for Warner Bros,” the exec says.

That plus can’t come soon enough for Zaslav and WBD.

Even with the official announcement of Gibbs’ hire this morning to take over the role Nathaniel Brown left in January, WBD shares fell to a 52-week low today of $6.96 – yes, under seven bucks. On that battlefield, it’s crucial that Zaslav, who is routinely pummeled for his high pay and faux pas, has a smart defender, and the company can put the best spin possible on its numbers, strategy and prospects at a really tough time for WBD and the media industry overall.

“They need someone who knows both corporate and entertainment,” another Hollywood veteran says about where WBD finds itself two years after the Warner Bros-Discovery merger made Zaslav CEO. “Gibbs doesn’t know the first thing about the industry, and they will eat him alive as soon as he stumbles, just like Morrell.”

Of course, even after crashing into one crisis after another in his about 70 workdays on the job, GOP and BP alum Morrell did exit Disney with around $10 million in compensation and benefits, according a corporate filing earlier this year. Additionally, he benefited from a Pasadena house that the company bought off him for $4.5 million on his way out.

Beyond Myers, Morrell and now Gibbs, there is a long history of White House officials and other DC aides moving to Hollywood jobs, often in top communications roles.

Lew Wasserman plucked salesman deluxe Jack Valenti from LBJ’s side in 1966 to run the then-MPAA and serve as Hollywood’s unofficial enforcer for decades. Richard Plepler was an aide to Sen. Chris Dodd before turning to PR in 1984 in NYC, ahead of a long career at HBO.

After serving as press secretary for Barbara Bush, Anna Perez joined CAA to head up media relations. Clinton White House veteran Jim Kennedy, had a long tenure at Sony Pictures Entertainment, Sony Corp. and most recently News Corp. Presently at Fiji Water parent The Wonderful Company, Seth Oster was one of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s first aides and a leading public affairs aide at the EPA under Obama before stints at SAG, the MPA and as a partner and global CCO at UTA. Now the chief operating officer at CNN, David Leavy was the National Security Council spokesman during the Clinton administration before hitching his wagon to Zaslav at Discovery and later WBD.

A longtime loyal aide to Donald Trump in his real estate years in New York, Hope Hicks became his White House Communications Director when the former Celebrity Apprentice host was in the White House. In 2018, she took over as chief communications officer at Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corp. Leaving little impression in Hollywood, she returned to the White House in 2020 to help out in Trump’s failed reelection bid.

Last month, Hicks gave tearful testimony in Trump’s New York hush money trial. At one point she detailed how, in the heat of the 2016 campaign, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner tried and failed to get Murdoch to put the brakes on an explosive Wall Street Journal story about the candidate’s alleged affair with 1998 Playboy Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal.

Hired in the aftermath of the Morrell train wreck, Kristina Schake has served as Senior Executive VP and chief communications officer at Disney since 2022, working for both Bob Chapak and the returning Bob Iger. Before joining the Mouse House, ex-Instagram advisor Schake was communications director for First Lady Michelle Obama, Deputy Communications Director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and handled the Biden administration’s Covid vaccine campaign.

Judy Smith, a crisis management expert who served in George H.W. Bush’s White House and later worked at NBC (and whose career inspired the TV series Scandal), says there is a benefit for corporations turning to the political world.

“When you bring in someone from the outside, sometimes that different perspective, a fresh set of eyes, can be very beneficial,” Smith tells Deadline. Any figure from the world of politics will have a learning transition period when taking a job in a corporation, whether that is entertainment or any other industry, she notes.

One top communications professional, who has gone back and forth between politics and entertainment, noted that even though Gibbs does not have Hollywood experience it doesn’t mean he does not have relevant experience. McDonald’s is one of the world’s largest advertisers, and he could bring that vantage point at a time media companies are grappling with a devastating downturn.

The move to tap White House officials for top communications posts also reflects changes in how corporations view public relations, as companies grapple with an array of regulatory issues, a more polarized environment and, in some cases, shareholder battles. One corporate communications professional says that CEOs, once desirous of a faceless chief comms officer, now lean toward someone who has the regular experience of dealing with the press, whether at a White House briefing or, even more importantly, on a campaign.

In that regard, coming from the razor-sharp elbows of New York state politics, Zenia Mucha kept Iger on message and put the fear into the heart of many a journalist during her reign at Disney from 2005 to 2021. Leaving around the time Iger’s first era as CEO came to an end, Mucha is now a top advisor to popular but besieged social media platform TikTok.

Zenia Mucha TikTok
Zenia Mucha

Moreover, corporate images of the likes of the almost banned TikTok, Disney and Budweiser often run into partisan buzz saws in these polarized times, and many issues are covered in the political press.

In that context, what a Washington, D.C. political background can bring, Smith notes, is experience in thinking quickly, making good decisions, and understanding the impact of those decisions. At the White House, press and communications leaders typically juggle 20 issues at once, including the unexpected, where “no two days are the same.”

“Given the world that we live in, with things that are constantly changing, that experience is appreciated,” Smith said. “Our world is more complex.”

Jill Goldsmith contributed to this report

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