"At the end of the seventh day, God realized he needed a publicist," Oscar-winning movie producer Steve Tisch once said. "So God made a couple of calls. Everybody recommended Howard Bragman. The rest is history."
One of the most highly regarded publicists in the game, Bragman founded the firm Bragman Nyman Cafarelli (BNC) in 1989, transforming it into the biggest company of its kind before selling it and establishing Fifteen Minutes PR in 2005. In addition to counseling an array of clients (Ricki Lake, Ford Motor Company and Marlee Matlin among them) in brand-burnishing and scandal response, Bragman teaches publicity at USC's Annenberg School; is a tireless activist for gay and lesbian rights, First Amendment freedoms, Jewish causes and other issues; and somehow found time to author what may be the definitive guide to modern publicity, "Where's My Fifteen Minutes? Get Your Company, Your Cause, or Yourself the Recognition You Deserve."
We seized the opportunity to grill him about PR in the digital era, crisis management, Perez Hilton and Paris Hilton.
EE: How is conducting PR in the 21st century different from the 20th?
Howard Bragman: I think it's safe to say there have been more dramatic changes in the last five years of PR than in the first 5,000. The first PR man was Moses' brother, Aaron. God tells Moses he's going to give him the 10 Commandments and Moses says, "God, I'm not that articulate." God says, "Well, your brother Aaron is; I'll give them to you, tell you what to say, you tell Aaron what to say, and we'll achieve the same results." So PR is the third-oldest profession, behind prostitution and witchcraft.
Some of the changes have been downright scary. The New York Times is only afloat because somebody loaned them a quarter of a billion dollars. The L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune and multiple other papers are in bankruptcy. The Boston Globe has closed. Many papers and magazines have gone online-only. Heads are rolling at Editorial.
There have been more dramatic changes in the last five years of PR than in the first 5,000.At the same time, there's a proliferation of new media outlets. So many people are left shaking their heads, perplexed. The good news is that many of the processes I describe in my book are the same. Number one is to take the pulse and do the communications audit. Number two, decide where you're going with your communications program. Number three, create written materials that support your messaging and branding — that's where you guys come in. The difference is where you go to disseminate this information. How do you disseminate it? How quickly do you disseminate it? Because clearly the metabolism of the media has gone wild.
What is a communications audit?
If I'm a spin doctor, I take the pulse. I'm looking at what's out there about a company or individual. What are people saying? Is it good, bad, indifferent? Is the client invisible? I look at their printed materials, what's on YouTube, what people are saying. The most important goal is to create a cohesive whole. If it's all over the place, you've probably got trouble.
When it's all over the place, how do you begin the process of getting it together?
You sit down with management, look at marketing plans and ask: What are we trying to achieve here? Once you know the ultimate goal, you can develop the strategy and messages. I think the book does a good job of helping people do this on a basic level. You have to understand what you're trying to achieve. If you have a consumer-products company, you want to sell products. If you have a crisis, you want the crisis to go away. Is your goal realistic? Is your "product" newsworthy? Does it have value in the marketplace? And then how am I going to best present that?
When so many outlets are spitting out so much content so fast, how do you navigate that?
I think you have to value them, but always be prioritizing. Perez Hilton is important, and a lot of people read him, but that doesn't make Perez Hilton the New York Times. You have to understand that the medium is still the message, so you have to give credence to the messengers with the most respect and gravitas. At the same time, to get your message out and get that volume, the blogosphere and other new media are great because you can reach a lot of people quickly.
Your media diet should be like your food diet — balanced.I always use the food analogy. Your media diet should be like your food diet — balanced. You should have some print, some broadcast, some online, some satellite, and so on. If we have bacon and eggs in the New York Times, a lot of the people in the blogosphere and online columnists are potato chips and M&M's. We'll sit down with the Wall Street Journal and consume it with a cup of coffee in the morning, but we'll flip to these online sites while we're at work and consume a morsel of information like a potato chip. It doesn't necessarily have the fiber or the protein, and it could get lodged in your throat and choke you if you're not careful. Or give you agita. So it's really a balancing act, and we're all learning.
Can you give us a bit of Crisis Management 101?
The most important thing is to know the difference between being in a crisis and having a bad day. A client recently had a snarky item in Nikki Finke's column, and they called me up and said, "We're in full crisis mode!" I said, "This isn't a crisis; it's a bad day." A crisis is destruction, scandal, defective products, people getting hurt, your bottom line falling quickly — situations where something has to be done. A bitchy review is not a crisis. I try to put it in perspective for my clients. Sometimes, like a physician, you have to say, "Let's watch this and see if it gets worse or if it goes away. If it gets worse, we'll deal with it."
Do you subscribe to the old adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity?
No. In fact, I have "The 10 Commandments of PR" in the back of my book, and the number-one commandment is that all press is not good press. If you're doing publicity and it's not taking you somewhere specific, it's wasted. The whole purpose of publicity is to build a brand or sell a product. It's not just to get a name out there. Having stood alongside Naomi Campbell in court, Ed McMahon losing his house and Isaiah Washington losing his job on "Grey's Anatomy," I can tell you there is such a thing as bad publicity. It can hurt you emotionally, financially and even physically.
When did you decide to write the book, and why?
First of all, I'd been doing PR for about 30 years and seen such dramatic changes. I realized that if it was a struggle for people inside the business to keep up, how did people outside the business do it?
Secondly, public images used to be reserved for actors, politicians and other celebrities; nowadays, by virtue of Google, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, most of us have public images. And like most things in life, if you don't manage it, it doesn't mean you don't have a public image — it just means you don't have the best one you can.
Finally, I've taught PR for many years at USC. When I started, people said, "How do you teach PR? It's too esoteric." Well, I've developed a lot of techniques, disciplines and processes that have really enabled me to understand PR. I could've kept them to myself, but I'm a believer in an enlightened, empowered, educated society. I think we all do better if we understand how the system works. Because anybody who's posting updates on Facebook or tweeting is a broadcaster at this point. So if you're going to be in the media, you should probably understand how it works.
It took a long time to write and sell this book, but when it was finally done and I got the galleys, my mother called and said, "Well, we read your book." And if she hadn't liked it, she would've said, "I'm very proud of you, but it's not for me." But she said, "We loved it! It was so interesting and we learned so much and it has so many great stories." You don't have to be in PR to enjoy it; you can read it for the war stories along the way. But a friend of mine who's a famous author told me, "I'm reading it for the fourth time, underlining it and folding pages. It's deceptively simple, but there's a lot there. I go back to it almost every week to think about how I'm marketing what I do." For that I'm grateful. When I finally got my hard copy, after all these years, I said, "Whatever happens, I'm proud of it."
Let's talk about your company and your decision to brand it without your name, which is one of the best-known in the business.
I sold my name when I sold BNC and agreed I wouldn't put my name on another PR company. And I love my current brand, particularly the humor in the name. People say, "Well, I want more than 15 minutes," and I say, dude, if you ain't got a sense of humor, you don't want me anyway." I'm proud of my first company and my second company. But my first company is my baby; I love the people and I'm proud of them. We did something amazing: We created the biggest PR firm in the world from nothing. I'm not the biggest right now, but I believe we're doing some of the best thinking out there, and we're extremely proactive. We certainly strive to do our best — and we very often achieve that.
I'm the guy who brands the company, and the book does that too. I'm the most exposed PR guy in the company and so I'm the go-to person for the media when there's a crisis.
What do you think about the YouTube-era phenomenon of people going from obscurity to fame overnight without the slightest media training?
It's interesting: It used to be that you'd build a brand and get famous. You'd become a good singer and then people would recognize you and you'd turn into Barbra Streisand. Nowadays, you start hugely famous, like Paris Hilton, and then you have to build a brand. "OK, I've got cameras following me. What am I famous for? How can I monetize this?" The arrows have moved in a different direction, but the goals are the same: longevity, credibility, respect. Those will never change.