LOS ANGELES, July 15—Concerned about its image in the wake of movies such as John Q and Damaged Care, the managed care industry has tapped entertainment-marketing specialist William Morris Consulting and public affairs firm Sugerman Communications Group to ensure that the power and influence of the entertainment industry work for it rather than against it.
Former Fleishman-Hillard executive Steve Sugerman, who now heads his own  Los Angeles-based public affairs firm, says he was approached by the American Association of Health Plans (AAHP) about helping it create stronger relationships in Hollywood, and immediately thought of partnering with the William Morris unit.
The consulting arm of the giant talent agency, which offers entertainment marketing and other entertainment-based business solutions, has handled brand-related assignments for clients such as Anheuser-Busch, General Motors, and the National Football League, and last year added former General Motors marketing chief Phil Guarascio to its roster of consultants, but had not previously branched out into issues management or public affairs.
“I believe this is a unique venture,” says Sugerman. “AAHP has a very strong presence in Washington and New York and does a good job of reaching opinion leaders in the government and business communities, but it was smart to realize the impact that Hollywood and the entertainment industry have on its reputation with the general public.”
Hollywood has historically portrayed the managed care sector in a less than positive light. Three years ago, audiences cheered when a character in the movie As Good As It Gets railed against the injustice of her HMO, and more recently the managed care industry was the villain in the Denzel Washington movie John Q, as well as Showtime’s original production Damaged Care, in which a doctor hired to review health insurance claims who becomes so disillusioned with the system that she ends up testifying against her former employers.
The AAHP—members include Aetna, Cigna, and UnitedHealthGroup—was proactive in presenting its case in the days before John Q opened, launching a campaign that called for changes in federal policy to help the uninsured and underinsured. The movie, as it turned out, was a critical and commercial flop.
The AAHP and William Morris Consulting will work together to “create a new dialogue between Washington’s public policy experts and Hollywood’s producers, writers and directors about the healthcare issues Americans face today,” according to a press release. The AAHP also hopes to become a resource to those in Hollywood creating healthcare-related content,  by providing access to medical experts.
“Both Washington and Hollywood are active contributors to the public’s awareness of health care issues, but up until this point, we have been working independently of each other,” said Mark Merritt, senior vice president of AAHP. “As the AAHP looks to find innovative ways to continue educating Americans on health care-related issues, creating a conversation with the entertainment industry is an important step.”
The decision to reach out to Hollywood recognizes a fundamental change in the way people get their information, according to William Morris Consulting senior vice president Johnny Levin. “Since almost three times as many Americans watch the television show ER than NBC Nightly News, it’s safe to assume that many viewers learn about today’s health care-related issues through entertainment programming.
“The AAHP recognizes the powerful influence of entertainment and we’re looking forward to helping them engage this creative community in a way that will benefit their members and the American public.”
Levin will lead the AAHP team, working closely with Guarascio and Sugerman, who was deputy mayor of Los Angeles under Richard Riordan.
Several talent agencies have launched marketing subsidiaries in recent years, including Creative Artists Agency, which does marketing consulting and has an ownership stake in New York corporate and public affairs firm Shepardson Stern & Kaminsky, which has worked on entertainment related issues for TiVo, Microsoft and Yahoo!