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Two Kinds of Publicists

February 24, 2011

buzz.jpegThere's nothing quite like a good PR manager. The best of my colleagues in public relations make my job so much easier. They inspire ideas for articles, help connect me with the people I need to speak to to do my reporting and respond to my fact-checking questions and other requests promptly and efficiently.

A conversation I had last night with a friend who heads up a prominent arts group in the Bay Area on the theme of publicists made me realize that there are really two kinds of publicists. One kind you want to work with, and the other, you don't.

I'm not talking about "good" PR people and "bad" PR people. Obviously there are a few incompetent boobs around who bungle even the smallest and simplest of media requests.

I'm talking about the difference between a publicist that has the best interests of their clients and the art those clients practice at heart versus those that do not. Very generally (though not always), the distinction lies between PR people who work for arts organizations and those that work for individual celebrity artists.

Because an individual artist has to have some clout and standing if not outright celebrity to have his or her own publicist (not to mention the ability to bring in quite a bit of cash to support the usual entourage of PR reps, managers, agents, fluffers etc), the people the individuals hire to meet their PR needs tend to be more focused on propagating the oversized celebrity egos of their clients and taking a defensive stance on even the tiniest details than serving the interests of the artists and the art those individuals practice. The PR people often have over-inflated egos themselves, though more often than not, they'll think of their behavior as being solely motivated by the protection of their clients' brand and work.

I bring this up because my friend, let's call her Kara, was upset last night because the publicist who works with a major artist with whom Kara's group is collaborating this spring, objected to the press release that Kara put out concerning the upcoming collaboration. Apparently the PR person thought that her client, who is a big name in the art world, should have higher billing / more prominence on the press release than Kara's group.

It's probably fair to say that Kara should have shown the press release she'd drafted to the PR person before she sent it out. The PR person was understandably cross about the lack of protocol. But a collaboration is a collaboration. The artists involved should be on equal footing, regardless of their household name status. And, as Kara told me, she's had so much trouble figuring out which of the celebrity's many aides to deal with -- and how to reach them -- that she wasn't even sure where to send the draft of the release. The communications channels were apparently confusing and opaque.

This kind of incident depresses me slightly. Journalists are used to getting the cold shoulder from celebrity PR reps. But the artists that work with those celebrities shouldn't get the same treatment. None of us should, frankly.

We're all working in service of culture. This is about art-making, people, not boosting celerity egos and putting other people down.

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