How Publicists Work


Publicists are public relations professionals who represent celebrities rather than companies. Gnarls Barkley singer Cee Lo Green parties with his publicist Echo Hattix. See more musician pictures.
© Tiffany Rose/WireImage/Getty Images

It's hard to be famous. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, there's no end to the public's hunger for the latest, craziest news, especially if it involves a celebrity. Young Hollywood actors are trailed by packs of roving paparazzi, and the pages of tabloid magazines are devoted to celebrities dressing badly, saying stupid things and being caught with people other than their spouse.

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This is why actors, politicians, musicians, authors and other well-known public figures hire publicists. Publicists are public relations professionals who specialize in representing individuals rather than companies and large organizations. The job of the publicist is to manage the client's image in the eyes of the public. They do this by getting good press for their client in magazines, newspapers, TV shows and Web sites.

A good publicist knows all of the editors, journalists and TV reporters that work her client's beat. She knows how to pitch a story that writes its own headline. And she knows how to spin a possible publicity crisis into a golden opportunity. After all, "all publicity is good publicity."

What do publicists do? How do you succeed as a publicist? And, how do you break into the business? Read on to find out.

Job Description of a Publicist

Publicists arrange appearances for their celebrity clients such as Natalie Portman on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival.
Publicists arrange appearances for their celebrity clients such as Natalie Portman on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival.
© Lorenzo Santini/FilmMagic/Getty Images

The main responsibility of a publicist is to get positive press coverage for his  client. To do this, the publicist needs to create and maintain good relationships with journalists by sending them original, insightful, timely story ideas that involve the client in some way.

There are several different ways to pitch story ideas to journalists. Press releases are an easy way to send the same story pitch to multiple members of the media. The standard press release is written like a news story, complete with an attention-catching headline, a lead paragraph that hooks in the reader and quotes from sources. In the age of the fax machine and e-mail, press releases are often lost in the overwhelming pile of junk that is sent to journalists on a daily basis.

A more effective way to get story ideas to a journalist is to cultivate a genuine, working relationship with reporters, editors and TV news producers. This means that publicists spend a considerable amount of time networking with members of the media. Much of their day is spent on the phone or firing off e-mails. Publicists work long hours and are expected to be available for the client day or night. After office hours, they attend parties and media get-togethers in the hope of getting face time with influential journalists.

The journalist/publicist relationship is a two-way street. What happens if the client does or says something incredibly stupid? Now it's the publicist who's receiving all of the phone calls and e-mails. If the publicist wants to maintain a good relationship with journalists, he will be most forthcoming to the people who have written positive stories about the client in the past.

Publicists handle all interview requests for a celebrity, politician, author or other public figure. To protect the client from any surprises, publicists will ask the journalist exactly what the story is about and what questions he plans to ask. In some cases, the publicist will ask to be present at the interview to make sure that the client doesn't comment on sensitive issues or make remarks that could look bad in the papers.

Publicists often organize press tours for actors, celebrities and authors. The publicist makes all the travel arrangements for the client, sets up locations, arranges for press passes and even accompanies the client on the road.

More than ever, publicists network with online bloggers and read and respond to comments on popular social networks. In addition to a standard press tour, they might arrange for a live, online Q&A session with a popular fansite or interviews with podcasts.

What skills does a publicist need? Read on to find out.

Required Skills to be a Publicist

Publicists arrrange interviews for celebrities, including press conferences like this one featuring MIley and Billy Ray Cyrus.
Publicists arrrange interviews for celebrities, including press conferences like this one featuring MIley and Billy Ray Cyrus.
© Tony R. Phipps/WireImage/Getty Images

The most important skill for a publicist is the ability to think like a journalist. Journalists and editors need publicists as much as publicists need them. Editors need to fill the pages of their newspapers, magazine and Web sites. They need stories tailored to their readers' interests. Celebrity and entertainment writers, in particular, rely on tips from publicists to keep their sections original and exciting.

This means that publicists need excellent communication skills both written and on the phone.

But a publicist does need other skills including being a natural "people person." He needs to be outgoing, funny and not afraid of rejection. The best publicists establish genuine relationships with the editors and reporters who cover their client. They know how to network without looking like they're networking. They earn the trust of journalists by always being honest and available for comment. They understand that a good idea from a good person will get much more attention than a lot of exclamation points from a used car salesman.

Patience and flexibility are extremely important for publicists as celebrities, politicians or other public figures can be difficult to work with. They hold odd hours, have bad habits and live in a media fishbowl. A publicist needs to be able to work within their client's time frame.

Like any career in public relations, publicists need to be able to deal with crises and emergencies with a calm head. They look for ways to turn mistakes into PR opportunities. When a rock star is busted for a DUI, the publicist needs to make sure there's a story in the next week's paper about the celebrity coming out of rehab and volunteering with Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

How do you break into the publicist business? Do you need a special college degree or can you just work your way up? Find out more in the next section.

Becoming a Publicist

Sometimes publicists work to keep their clients out of the press like Shia LaBeouf's recent car accident. LaBeouf is on the set of "Transformers 2."
Sometimes publicists work to keep their clients out of the press like Shia LaBeouf's recent car accident. LaBeouf is on the set of "Transformers 2."
© Bobby Bank/WireImage/Getty Images

Strong written and oral communication skills are essential to becoming a publicist, so a lot of future publicists major in communications, journalism and public relations in college. That said, there's no specific college degree that guarantees success as a publicist. Good publicists are generally well read with a broad liberal arts education. Advanced degrees are not necessary.

To become a publicist, you need to start at the bottom, gain on-the-job experience and work your way up the ranks. A good place to start is with an internship while you're in college. Public relations firms, literary agencies and talent agencies are good places to look for publicity internships. Interns are expected to do some of the least glamorous work like pick up rental cars and dry cleaning for the client, run to Starbucks for the office staff and conduct online research.

With some internship experience, you could land an entry-level job as a publicist's assistant. In this capacity, you might answer phones, help the publicist draft press releases, keep the publicist's calendar, assemble press kits, research journalists and make arrangements for press tours. Assistants are expected to be on-call, sometimes at odd hours and always reachable through a cell phone or BlackBerry. As a perk, you may get to attend parties, hang out with famous people and share in some of the free gifts.

To move up from an assistant position, you need to start making contacts within the publicity industry and the media. Being an assistant is a great place to start, because you can piggyback on the network of contacts already in your boss's Rolodex. You need to show your boss and members of the media that you're reliable, a solid writer and that you have a nose for a good news story.

Even as an intern or an assistant, consider joining one of the established industry groups like the Public Relations Society of America or the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations. These groups hold conferences, workshops and information sessions that can help you network with fellow publicity professionals.

In the end, your success as a publicist will depend on how well you represent your clients. If you can get great press for a lesser-known client, then bigger-name celebrities will know that you can handle higher-profile, higher-maintenance clients. The nature of celebrity is fleeting, so expect some dry spells during any publicity career. One day you're representing Angelina Jolie, and the next day you're pitching stories for Hulk Hogan. The important thing is to get some sort of satisfaction and thrill from working with public figures and the media.

For lots more information on publicists and related topics, see the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources 

  • "A Day in the Life: Book Publicity." Ehrenreich, Amy. Vault. (http://www.vault.com/nr/main_article_detail.jsp?article_id=21834287&cat_id=0&ht_type=1)
  • "Letter to the Editor: A Flack or a Flak." Pederson, Wes. The New York Times. Sept. 26, 1999. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F07EFD9103FF935A1575AC0A96F958260
  • "Publicist." The Princeton Review. http://www.princetonreview.com/Careers.aspx?page=1&cid=132&uidbadge=%2507
  • "The Most Popular Publicist in New York."  Neyfakh, Leon. The New York Observer. November 27, 2007. http://www.observer.com/2007/most-popular-publicist-new-york?page=1