A tribute to and an inside look at the life of a publicist in honor of National Publicist Day 2021.
By Carol Ann Underwood | October 2021
When you think of a publicist, do you imagine Samantha Jones from Sex and the City or Shauna Roberts from Entourage? These pop culture references are often what come to mind when you think about a publicist. However, these TV shows don’t always accurately portray a genuine day-to-day work life of a publicist. In honor of National Publicist Day on Oct. 30, we spoke to three publicists who described their role beyond generating media coverage and writing press releases. National Publicist Day recognizes and honors the hard work and dedication of these publicists, but Oct. 30 is an important date to any public relations professional. On October 30, 1906, Ivy Lee, the man most associated with early corporate publicity, wrote what may be the first press release in response to an accident that occurred on the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was published verbatim in the New York Times and is known as the “Statement from the Road.”
Public relations has far exceeded what was involved in publicity in the early 1900s. Today, It comprises digital and social media, crisis communications, government relations, reputation and brand management, content creation, and more. PRSA says, “At its core, public relations is about influencing, engaging and building a relationship with key stakeholders across numerous platforms to shape and frame the public perception of an organization.” Public relations professionals use many methods and tactics to build and maintain the relationships organizations need.
As students near graduation and young professionals find their place in the industry, they look for career direction. In a world with many opportunities, the idea of where you want to be in five years can become muddled with an overwhelming number of choices. We spoke with Deidre Gaskin, The Most Valuable Publicist™ and publicist for The Harlem Globetrotters; Breanna Hogan, publicist for Netflix; and Joelle Onukwubiri, publicist for Persona PR. They pull back the curtain on their career and life as a publicist.
When interested in a career, Millennials’ and Gen Z’s instinct is to go online to learn more. Hubspot’s study into Gen Z search trends shows that Gen Zers are more interested than other generations in using search platforms to get recommendations or suggestions for the best possible experience. This finding will apply to their career searches too. The average Google search for “what is a publicist’ produces 40.4 million results. Each result has its own definition and idea of publicity. Onukwubiri explains the function of a publicist as, “A publicist or publicity is an extension of our clients … We’re another aspect of our clients. We help to extend their voice; we help to give them a platform to speak. We give them an opportunity to showcase their talent, their news, their company, their brand.”
Gaskin adds, “My job as a publicist is to expose your product or service to your target audience through the media, key decision-makers, influencers and stakeholders. In essence, we help build your brand. We serve as the bridge between our clients and the public with visibility as the focal point.”
What do publicists do all day to build these relationships? In a simple answer, it’s writing and reading complemented with organizing, coordinating and networking. A day in the life of a publicist could include writing press releases, media alerts, biographies, press kits, copy for websites and social media, pitching, and content creation. Hogan said publicists should be “paying attention to what’s going on in the news, where the trends are and what people are talking about.” Taking in and reading information from the news cycle can be used later when brainstorming for a campaign.
Paying attention to the news is an important aspect when you are a publicist. Onukwubiri explained, “You need to know what’s going on in the news, specifically for your industry. When I was working in tech and government, I had to stay on top of what was going on in the tech space. You should keep on top of the news and know what’s happening because what’s happening in the news could affect what’s going on in your clients’ lives.”
If you are a student or a young professional who realizes that some of your strongest soft skills are planning, coordinating, organizing, and paying attention to detail, the life of a publicist may be for you. Onukwubiri explained, “It’s a lot of organization because you juggle a lot of clients, especially public relations agencies, who have a large roster. So depending on what sort of clients you cover, you definitely want to be organized… There’s desk work, which is answering client emails, answering reporter emails, or coordinating interviews. It’s maintaining your client’s schedule and knowing what they’re doing and when they’re working.”
Hogan added that organization is a must. “There are so many people involved, dealing with the press aspect and helping the press get everything that they need to run their coverage. If they have an interview request for a specific talent, we have to gather all the information and take it to the talent’s personal publicist to coordinate with their schedule. Then we have to go back to the press, with what day and time work. We make sure they have screened the film or the project, that they have photos with the proper credits and that they have links to the trailer. It’s a lot of coordinating and making sure everything that’s needed to execute an in-person launch event or premiere.” She continued, “A lot of it is keeping track of where people move, someone will leave an outlet and go to another outlet. We have to keep lists updated to make sure they are constantly evolving. When someone leaves Essence and goes to Ebony, we have to make sure that gets translated into a press list so that we have all the accurate information. But it’s also putting out fires and jumping in to problem-solving mode.”
These skills are vital not just to entertainment public relations. Onukwubiri spoke from her previous experiences: “Tech clients are not necessarily going to award shows and doing photoshoots, but you still need to know their availability and their schedule, and how to maintain that. You still need to know how to be organized and how to multitask. That’s another skill that I feel like you can’t just have right off. You can always be better at it. In the past, I had to do a lot of coordinating, a lot of scheduling, a lot of maintaining schedules, a lot of writing and a lot of editing.”
This also means that no day is the same for a publicist. They are tasked with important responsibilities. Gaskin said, “I usually have a bunch of emails to check, pitches to create and/or follow up on, maybe some materials I need to write or create such as a press release, media alert, bios, press kits, copy for marketing materials including website, social media, or emails. On more hectic days, I can be organizing a community event, wrangling up media to cover it, executing a press conference or back-to-back calls with clients for interviews and team meetings in between.”
Deciding on Publicity
If you are in the process of discovering where you belong in public relations, follow Hogan’s advice: Focus on your strongest skills and talents as an individual to guide your PR career. After Hogan researched the industry, she found her calling in publicity. “I started to really dive into publicity. I joined the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) and all these different organizations to learn more about publicity. And what I learned first is that publicity can span all different sectors. So there’s entertainment publicity – but even within entertainment, there are sports, music, film and TV public relations,” Hogan said. “Even though I had narrowed it down, there was still a lot to figure out within that what I wanted to do.”
Publicists can enter several industry areas. Gaskin said, “As a publicist, you can dive into ANY industry because there’s not one name-brand that doesn’t have PR in place. I currently serve as a sports publicist, but you can become a beauty publicist, an entertainment publicist, a tech publicist, a unit publicist for feature films, and the list goes on.”
Considerations for Students and Young Professionals
If you are a student who is curious about this career path in public relations, Gaskin recommended that you, “take the time to learn the industry, learn whatever niche you want to serve in and just be great in all aspects of PR. Be a great writer, be a great communicator, be a great researcher, be a great person. I say intern and volunteer as much as you can, that way you can build your resume and build your career.”
Research the publicity career through reading, researching and experiencing. Building your resume to stand out as a budding publicist will be the most important part of discovering and learning about the career.
Onukwubiri’s greatest advice for current students is, “Always improve the skills that you have and your communication skills —verbal and written. It’s important to acknowledge your strengths, but it’s helpful to improve your weaknesses.” She offered insight for young professionals who are considering a transition in publicity as well and said, “Take whatever skills you’ve had in your past job and bridge it or blend it into publicity, because it always can be transitioned, you just have to be willing to make that sort of blend and that connection.”
So, how do you gain experience to put on your resume? Internships. Hogan said, “Internships are invaluable because the job market is just getting increasingly competitive and difficult. If you can have a handful of internships under your belt to say, ‘Hey, I’ve done this before, I have a little experience,’ it shows you’re serious about it and have gone the extra mile to get the experience. Strive for the team to say on the last day, ‘What are we going to do without you?’ Make yourself invaluable to the team, constantly learning, constantly willing to do more than what’s asked of you, because people remember all of that.”
Carol Ann Underwood is a graduate student at The University of Alabama, working towards her master’s degree in advertising and public relations. She currently works as a Graduate Assistant for The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. Before returning to earn her masters, she worked in marketing and communications positions in the real estate industry and for a financial services provider.