Do you hear that? That’s the sound of the camera shutter clicking as we transition to the next scene in Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal—actually, it’s the sound of transition for the real-life inspiration behind Olivia Pope, author and crisis management expert Judy Smith because she is parting ways with her clients at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA).
That’s right, according to the Hollywood Reporter, the strategic advisory and crisis communications firm led by Smith has cut ties with the HFPA and apparently, the email situation involving former HFPA president Philip Berk was the last straw. What email situation was that? We at The Root got you, boo! We reported on Tuesday that Berk, who previously served as HFPA president for eight terms, wrote to members and staff members that Black Lives Matter was a “racist hate movement.” Yeah, that did it! HFPA’s law firm Lathan & Watkins had retained Smith’s crisis communications firm a bit over a month ago, but that relationship is a dud.
The HFPA is already subject to pressures from NBC (the network that airs the Golden Globes ceremony) and MRC (the owner of the Globes production company Dick Clark Productions), who both demanded Berk be expelled from HFPA membership. Additionally, there’s still the looming demand of Time’s Up and over 100 PR firms with high-profile Hollywood clients who wrote respective letters to the HFPA, demanding that they make major reforms or risk losing their relationships, as well. The HFPA promised to do this by May 6...which is inching closer and closer!
More about Smith’s exit, from THR:
Early in the relationship, Smith was reportedly outraged by the recommendation of Dr. Shaun Harper, a USC professor whom the HFPA hired March 9 to serve as its diversity and inclusion (D&I) adviser, that the HFPA add 13 new Black members—a seemingly arbitrary number, which then would have brought the HFPA membership to 100—before the next Globes ceremony. She subsequently grew increasingly frustrated by the organization’s refusal to listen to other advice and commit to concrete actions, ultimately concluding that its problems are so deep-rooted that it is a lost cause, which led her to quit Tuesday.
To make matters stickier for the HFPA, Dr. Harper has walked away, too! And it reportedly had to do with a meeting he took with Time’s Up members Ava DuVernay and Shonda Rhimes, which didn’t go well at all. Basically, he realized the issue within the organization is far more complicated than he can handle.
“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,” Dr. Harper wrote in his resignation letter, per THR. “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.”
Because of these major exits, there is speculation that the organization that hosts the Golden Globes may also lose their PR firm Sunshine Sachs and law firm Ropes & Gray LLP. Though none of this has been confirmed yet, we do know that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. As I said before...who wants a seat at a burning table?
The Root has reached out to Smith, Harper, Sunshine Sachs and Ropes & Gray LLP for comment.
Update: 04/21/2021, 1:58 p.m. ET: Deadline has a few updates in this HFPA saga. First, the nonprofit organization of entertainment journalists and photographers has confirmed they have expelled Phil Berk from membership rolls, following the backlash from his racist email.
“Effective immediately, Phil Berk is no longer a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association,” the HFPA board said in a statement on Wednesday.
As for one of the teams representing the HFPA, Deadline hasn’t received official statements from Sunshine Sachs (neither has The Root at the time of this update), but a source close to the matter told Deadline that the HFPA’s bad press could “hurt [their] larger business profile,” which is leading the PR firm to possibly cut ways soon. Another source said Sunshine is currently “considering all options.”