Howard Bragman unpacks how we have redefined what PR stands for.
Question: What are the obligations of PR people? Bragman: In the early part of the 20th century was a practitioner named Edward Bernays, and he’s known as the Father of Spin or the Father of Public Relations, and one of the things that he said was, “A PR person…,” and it’s still relevant today, “A PR person has three jobs,” and I’ve always taken this very seriously. The first, obviously, is to present your client to the public, right? But the second is to interpret the environment that your client’s going into. That is, if you are going out with a story, if you’re an auto maker right now and you are going out with a story about a new car, you have to deal with the environment you’re dealing in. I have a real estate company, a high-end residential real estate company that I represent in Los Angeles, and the story we’ve been saying is, “Why do these morons own a high-end residential real estate company and launch it in the middle of the worst recession in decades,” and we’ve gotten a lot of [plague] based on that. The third job of a PR person is to do good, and, for lack of any better vision, to make society a better place, to affect positive change, these are the good things we do and I’ve always tried to follow that in my career. Question: What are the key elements of PR today? Bragman: You need to manage your perception in this world. It is a basic life skill. Let me explain. PR used to stand for Public Relations, no longer. PR now stands for ‘perception and reality,’ and the job of me, a media relations person, a Public Relations person is to manage that relationship between perception and reality. And for most people, if this is perception and this is reality, the reality is better than the perception. That is most people. I’m really good, people just don’t know it. I’m a great actor, I’m a great dentist, I’m a great environmental activist. For some people, their perception exceeds their reality. We call those people Dr. Phil. Oh, we call that hype. When your perception exceeds your reality, that’s called hype. You want to keep your perception and reality relatively happy, because, if not, you get that term we all learned in college psychology, cognitive dissonance. Something is out of whack here. Something is not right. And the job of somebody like me is to manage that relationship between perception and reality. So if I got somebody with not a great perception but a great reality, I tell the world. I tell the world so these things could be equaled out. If I have somebody where the perception is there one thing and there something else, again, I put more reality in there and try and even that out so people can understand the fuller picture of my clients. Whether they get out of it, they get clients, they get business, they get to change the world, if they’re president of the PTA, if they’re an environmental activist, if they run a small business, everybody’s got a website, everybody seems to be on Facebook or MySpace. These are not optional anymore. These are required if you want to compete in this world we live in. Question: How do you make a client see an accurate perception of themselves? Bragman: I do my research before any new business client comes in and I do internet research. I talk to people in the business. A lot of times it’ll be actors, things like that, where people think they’re one way and they’re another. Most people have a basic image, but we all are human, and we all think of ourselves differently. It’s how people are going to always write other people’s resumes but not themselves. People can always judge, do I like that outfit on somebody else but not themselves. So we all get a little thrown off by the fact that we’re dealing with ourselves and we’re never quite as grounded as when we’re dealing with someone else. And it really depends if you’re talking about the actor world, some people have a dead-on perception of who they are and what they’ve achieved. Some people think they’re huge superstars and they’re minor stars. Some people think they’re relatively minor stars and they’re huge stars. So in my own gentle style, I try and get them grounded in reality and say, “Here’s where I think we’re starting from and here’s where we’re going to.” Question: How can you predict if someone is going to be a star or a dud? Bragman: If Paris Hilton comes to me and said, “This sex tape is about to get out,” and you can be one of two minds about it. She can say, “I have no desire to be in the public eye. I want to go hide and I don’t want to do anything,” or, “Sex tape be damned, I am going to be a movie star, a singer, and have my own line of merchandise clothing and fragrance and I’m going to be a brand.” And it really depends on what that person wishes to achieve and you start from there, if it’s achievable at all. And one of the points I make in the book is you look at a Kim Kardashian, who was essentially discovered by a sex tape, or Paris Hilton, whose career was certainly accelerated by that, we live in different times. We don’t judge those kinds of things anymore, particularly young people. It’s just not a big deal. They think being famous is cool and something that almost everyone’s entitled to. I have one researcher in Chicago and he does teen research, 20% of all teenagers believe they will be famous in their lifetime. Not want to be, but believe they will be famous, and there may be some truth to that, because there’s never been more ways to become famous. There are reality shows and Facebook and YouTube and pageants and, you know, the list is endless. In sports and so many ways a young person can really stand out in this world. So there’s some truth to that, but it really starts with the recognition of here is where I am and here is where I want to go. Question: What’s your take on someone like Julia Allison? Bragman: Well, my question is, “What are you building out of that?” I know a lot of famous people, okay? And I know a lot of poor famous people. Fame is not an endpoint and that’s what I have to disabuse people of. Recognition is the endpoint, to be recognized for being an internet expert or YouTube expert or a great journalist or a great doctor or a great researcher. The fame will come from that. But to be famous for the sake of being famous, you might get a good restaurant table but, beyond that, you give somebody the finger when you’re driving and they cut you off, you can bet it will be on Perez Hilton the next day and you lose a lot of privacy by just becoming famous. So what I always encourage people is to go for recognition, go for achievement and the fame will come. And recognition is good because you build a brand that is something you can monetize. Fame is not necessarily something you can just monetize. You don’t make a living by virtue of the fact that you’re famous, you make a living by virtue of the fact that you do something well, and the fame helps accelerate a lot of these things. The other thing I tell people is we’re trying to build careers in the crackpot, not a microwave, think of food. You take your crackpot, you put some chicken in, you put some vegetables, broth and spices, and a number of hours later, you come out with this, it’s alchemy, this amazing, delicious thing. You take the same thing and you put it in a microwave and you come out with sort of cooked in one spot, raw in another spot, chewy at this end, and it’s like…. So you want to control the speed and velocity of your recognition or fame that it doesn’t happen so quickly. Now, having taken this to a certain place, she’s a pretty clever lady, who knows where she’ll end up in five years, but the question is does she have a five-year plan? How is she going to monetize it and what is she going to do with that recognition to change the world, to make money. I don’t judge people’s motives. You know, people say I want to be famous because I want to be rich. I want to be famous because I want to change the world. I want to be famous because I want to be laid, whatever it is, that’s their right, that’s their choice and I support it, but the question is are the ways you’re going about it really getting you there. Question: How do you spot the next trends? Bragman: You know, trends really come as a result. The PR person uses trends because I want to proactively get my clients in the media. So I remember years ago in Chicago, stories are either part of a trend or against a trend, and you have to understand that. If I can find three of something, I have a trend. I had a celebrity whose mother was his manager, for example, and we got a story, I believe it was in the New York Times about ‘mama-gers,’ as we called them mothers who were managers. And we said, “They’re not stage mothers anymore,” and it had to be a willingness to understand that other people are going to share the spotlight with this particular celebrity, but he could get a very nice story about it. Years ago in Chicago, I had a client and even 25 years ago, people were talking about our high tech future. And my client made trailer doors for trucks; how do you make that exciting? Well, I made him the guru of low tech. In this time, when everybody was going after high tech, this guy was going out and buying these industrial, low tech companies, and we got tremendous amount of press for him. What you want to be is anything but a pet rock. You don’t want to be a flash in the pan trend. You want to… this goes to how you become a good PR person. Do a lot of work for a journalist. If you say, “Hey, I found this trend out or I found these four companies that are doing this particular thing,” journalists are going to appreciate it because, as we all know, journalists are struggling now. There are less journalists at the paper and they have more to write, so if you do some work for them, they’re going to be very happy. And a trend just comes as you get to know a particular client, and what it is, what are the things that make up that particular person. A trend may be how they dress, how they look, maybe your client is diabetic and you have clients who, you know, deal with diabetes on the road. That may be a trend. You know, health issues are always interesting trends because there’s an eager pool of journalists writing about medical and science things that want to do it. You just have to be able to look at not the big picture, but sort of break it down into the component parts, if you will. Question: How do your stay sane in a business that can be so vapid? Bragman: I’m really clear in my own life about who and what is important and what’s not. I mean, people would be shocked. I tend to go to bed, you know, barring having an event for a client or something, I’m generally in bed by 9:30 at night and get up at 5:30 in the morning. Although I have a handful of celebrity friends, they act very un-celebrity when they’re around me. And when I’m around them, they’re not “fabulous,” because I tell people that I do fabulous for a living, and I’m a nice Midwest guy and I know what my values are and I know what my priorities are and I know what’s important out there. And it’s not going to some [chic] party, I’d rather be in bed with my dog and my husband.