President Barack Obama's recent criticism of Sony Pictures decision to pull its release of "The Interview" included the lament, "I wish they had spoken to me first."
What many Americans did not know, however, was that the president was grumbling about a personal friend.
Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton is one of the president's most reliable campaign donors, but the relationship is deeper than that: He and his wife, Jamie Alter Lynton, have visited the White House a dozen times and even vacationed with the Obamas. And Sony Pictures is well-connected in Washington in its own right, spending half a million dollars a year on lobbying in addition to its influence through the heavy-hitting Motion Picture Association of America. Few companies, it turns out, would have been in a better position to make a phone call to the president.
But in a public-relations crisis, friendship—at least open friendship—is one of the first things to be jettisoned. And in this case, the president and Sony have wildly different goals.
After theaters refused to show "The Interview," a comedy in which two reporters kill the leader of North Korea, Sony said it wouldn't go ahead with its Christmas Day release. Obama called that a mistake. Lynton–who said he did "reach out and speak to" a senior White House adviser—is trying to portray the company as competent and resilient after the cancellation and in the face of an embarrassing computer hack that the FBI says was perpetrated by North Korea. (Reports on Tuesday indicated that the movie will be released after all.)
Lynton also may have wanted to limit the damage and potential liability from threatened events tied to the film's release. The trove of leaked material unfortunately even involved Obama: The studio's co-chairman and a producer made racially insensitive jokes about the president's imagined movie preferences.
In emails with producer Scott Rudin, Amy Pascal, who is another frequent donor to Obama and Democrats, wrote that Obama probably isn't interested in financing movies, and the two named different films with black casts that they joked the president probably liked. Rudin and Pascal have apologized for those emails.
Obama, meanwhile, is navigating what appears to be one of the largest cyber-attacks on a U.S. company. He characterized the hack as "cyber vandalism" and didn't commit to putting North Korea back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism. "We've got very clear criteria as to what it means for a state to sponsor terrorism, and we don't make those judgments just based on the news of the day," he said in a CNN interview on Friday.
Sony officials have been working with the FBI on the investigation of the studio's hack and subsequent unspecified threats of violence that prompted the theater backlash. The company has declined to comment beyond Lynton's interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria.
But Sony's purported lack of communication with the White House is something of a mystery, given the depth of Lynton's relationship with the president. It dates back to when Obama was an unknown Democrat running for an Illinois U.S. Senate seat. Joanne Alter, a trailblazing Chicago politician and Lynton's mother-in-law, had identified Obama as someone to watch. The Lyntons hosted a 2004 Hollywood fundraiser for the budding political superstar. There he met rapper Will.i.am, who wrote what would be his 2008 presidential campaign anthem, "Yes, We Can," according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Jamie Alter Lynton worked the phones for Obama's first election as part of a California team that made 2 million calls to voters in battleground states on Election Day, and described about her experience in a Huffington Post essay. "All over the country, supporters felt similarly eager to do something, anything to help Barack Obama win the election," she wrote. "But it was the California operation that hit upon a simple community-based formula to ride that wave."
Their ties have only deepened since then. The couple worked as Obama "bundlers," raising at least $500,000 for the two elections. The Lyntons were guests at Obama's first state dinner, in honor of India's prime minister and his wife.
The president began and ended his re-election fundraising trail in Hollywood, side-by-side with the Lyntons. Obama's first re-election rally in California was on Sony's studio lot. And then a month before the 2012 election, Lynton and other Hollywood luminaries like George Clooney and Seth MacFarlane dined with Obama at a $25,000-per-person dinner at WP24, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. After the money chase, Lynton continued to pop up in Obama's world, joining the president on Martha's Vineyard in August 2013. He's also been engaged in Hollywood's anti-piracy discussions in D.C., visiting the White House at least once to discuss intellectual property rights, the administration's visitor log records show.
So, it seems unlikely that Lynton couldn't reach out to Obama if he wanted to. But there are ample reasons why the two needed to be circumspect. Eric Dezenhall, a crisis-management consultant who isn't involved, was perplexed by Obama's complaint that Sony didn't check with him before canceling the movie release. "If Sony had called him, people would wonder, 'What kind of country is this where the head of a company can call the president for a favor?'" he said. "The optics of that are not good."
And, given the complex mix of corporate and geopolitical interests that defines the current situation, there's no P.R. playbook to follow. The cyber-attack on Sony may spur the government to define what—if any—responsibility and authority it has to protect private companies targeted by foreign governments and whether those companies can strike back on their own. Obama vowed in his year-end press conference that the U.S. would "respond proportionally." North Korea suffered Internet outages on Monday and Tuesday, though no one has taken credit for that.
The studio's relationships in Washington could help it recover. Sony Pictures has paid at least $560,000 a year since 20008 for the lobbying services of The Smith-Free Group. They're the DC firm's biggest client. The MPAA, headed by former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, represents six movie studios including Sony, but has deferred to Sony for public outreach on this one. And just in case that's not enough, the studio hired political crisis manager Judy Smith to pitch in. She's the real-life inspiration for Kerry Washington's character on the TV show "Scandal."