What Does a Publicist Do?


When I tell people “I’m a publicist,” I often get asked, “What exactly does that entail?” Well, that’s actually a hard question to answer.  I usually stick with my standard go-to phrase: “I help people and brands connect with the media and get their message across to the consumer.”  But, truth be told, there’s a whole lot of details, stress, and craziness that’s involved.  I suppose it’s similar to a fashion show or a Broadway play where stoic models and actors are on stage and the shit is hitting the fan backstage.  It’s ordered chaos though, of course. It’s stressful and high pressured but it can be very rewarding and entertaining.

In my nearly 20 years in the PR industry, I have seen quite a lot. Some things that were amazing and some things that made me want to bleach my eyeballs. I have met celebrities, industry icons, amazing philanthropists; but I’ve also met seedy, shady characters that belonged in straight jackets as well.  There are people in the “entertainment industry” that make you want to take a scalding shower after shaking their hand or people so void of morals that the minute you get home you squeeze your loved ones so tight they turn slightly blue.

Yes, I’ve endured cringe-worthy moments where either a reporter or a celebrity has spoken to me like I was a bug on the bottom of their overpriced loafer (or Manolo stiletto); moments where I definitely wanted to run and cry in the bathroom.  But as a publicist, you can never let them see you sweat.  So, I sucked it up and put my big girl panties on. As my mother used to say,  “Lindsey, you can cry into your Ben & Jerry’s while wearing your Hello Kitty PJs, later. Now’s not the time.”

What’s my best armor against snarky people in this business?

I do my research.  I know who my client’s audience is and what that consumer is looking for.  If I invited a reporter to my event, I know what he/she has covered in the past.  I know the tone in which they write their column.  It’s not often, but sometimes there is a need to push back.  So if someone is trying to discredit my client or poke fun at their product, I have an arsenal of data, statistics, and case studies if need be.

I have always been a team player. In my younger years that made me feel like I could hide behind the curtain. But now, it means I know the teams and the fields very well.   At an event, I’m often the one running around in a black suit with sensible shoes, an iPhone, and a folder.  I’m volleying between the celebrities, hosts and honorees; and the media.  Usually we hire an in-house TV and photog crew as well, so in addition to making sure the outside press gets their interviews, I also make sure our in-house crews get first dibs on all interviews and news worthy items.  What’s in the folder?  The folder contains bios, press releases, and photos of important VIP guests.  Did you really think I knew the correct spelling and title of everyone that walks the red carpet!?!  During an event, I probably burn a marathon’s worth of calories while escorting VIPs down the red carpet, coordinating interviews and putting out fires–we can’t have the fashion editor sitting at the sponsor’s table!  The real work however, is done weeks before we opened the doors and rolled out the red carpet.  In order to get a reasonable amount of press to show up at the event, I most likely have contacted over 1,000 reporters, producers and editors.  Yep. I emailed, called, left voice-mails, and IM’d everyone on my database, several times…to get 20 yes’s.

Imagine meeting one of your idols? I did.

One of my career highs was an event in Beverly Hills honoring Meryl Streep, right before the 2003 Oscars.  Working on that event was an amazing experience.  I worked on timing the event, writing scripts, seating charts, red carpet arrivals, satellite feeds and media placements.  Although I had worked with many celebrity publicists by that point, I had never worked with celebrity wranglers prior.  And, I had never worked with an industry icon like Lois Smith.

Wow. I’m not sure if I was more in awe of her or Meryl, who was down to earth and very gracious by the way.

Smith was responsible for forming careers like Robert Redford, Marilyn Monroe, and Martin Scorsese.  She didn’t have to hide behind niceties or a public image.  She oozed intelligence and power, which in the hour I was in her presence, I tried to soak up.  She was always at arm’s length to Meryl.  She buffered Meryl when necessary but also connected when appropriate.  A few times during the night I might have been caught pinching myself.  I sat next to Meryl’s dear friend Carrie Fisher and listened to her reminisce about old times in Hollywood.  Such a contrast to the night before when my husband and I were sitting in a cramped Chinese restaurant fighting over baby names!

Another lesson I’ve learned along the way is that publicity is a very results driven business.  I can often do the same amount of work for one client who gets awesome results, as I can for a client who can’t get one interview request. Why?  Well, it’s a tricky business.  It depends on timing, the news cycle, who you’re competing against, and how media savvy your client is.  If you’re pitching a fluffy lifestyle piece the same day as an Ebola outbreak or a celebrity lands in jail (that’s not Lindsay Lohan), kiss your chances goodbye.  If you have an event with several “B” or “C” level celebrities, the same night as a high-profile event like the Oscars, again, kiss your chances adios muchachos.

That being said, if you try to counsel your client and they still insist on having the event that day, and you don’t get a stitch of media but you still did ALL the work, you’d still expect to be paid, right?  It’s not a service where you pay for something and walk out the door with a product for your money.  But, with the right amount of finesse, publicity can bring a brand out of the woodwork and into the limelight.  

I have worked with some amazing charities and brought media attention to some great causes.  For instance, at an event for shelter dogs, I had Ice-T and Coco make an appearance, which they graciously did for free because they are avid dog lovers.  Their appearance garnered more attention for the event and therefore meant more dogs got adopted that day.  And that’s just one of the smaller examples…

A magazine I handle publicity for honors philanthropic women around the country each year.  These women are tireless pioneers, helping build schools, feed the poor, treat the sick, and fill a need where they saw a void in a community.  I have never been so humbled by an event.  I truly love promoting these women in their hometowns and to national outlets.  I still stay in touch with some of these women and their charities because they have forever changed me.  It’s moments like these that remind me why I entered this business.  When I was starting out, I wanted a fulfilling career that made me feel empowered, showcased my talents, and helped people.  I may not be saving lives or building schools in Africa, but I have promoted charities and women who have.

Because of my press release, a TV crew came to an event and several dogs found forever homes.

Because of my pitch letter, a remarkable woman got to tell her story on a national morning show.

Do you remember several years back when Jamie Lee Curtis stripped down to her underwear untouched on the cover of a magazine?

I was the publicist who sent that story to USA Today and Entertainment Tonight the week before it hit newsstands.  But no one (except those who read this blog) will know it was me that got that woman in that chair, telling her story, sharing her dream, with the country. No one will know it was me that stayed up until the wee hours of the night sending out that press release or that magazine article that made headlines. But does it really matter?  Nope, not to me. That’s not why I became a publicist. I just wanted to help others tell their stories.  I never wanted to be a celebrity or in the limelight. I just wanted to see the limelight shine from my kids’ eyes.  And this career has allowed me the flexibility to be around for every one of my kids’ milestone moments.  I may have been racing down the parkway at warp speed from some event in NYC, but I got to the bus stop on time, I got to the recital or game, or graduation.  I may have gotten a speeding or parking ticket in the process, but those details really don’t matter.

So what does being a publicist entail?  

I guess the short answer is I’m a juggler, a multi-tasker, a schmoozer, and a bit of a fortune teller.   However, the most important task is I’m a connector.  I connect stories and people to their audience, their consumer.   Sometimes that message is providing golf-wear to someone who wants to look stylish on the green or recipes to a frazzled mom looking for ideas for dinner.  But sometimes, the message I’m connecting is helping provide shelter and food to those in need.  All in a day’s work!

Photo is by Dr. Rebecca York @ York Wellness