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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Spotlight For Everyone

As posted by: Wall Street Journal

On his Web site, Howard Bragman quotes a remark that Billy Wilder once made to him: "Mr. Bragman, you have a much better name for public relations than either Mr. Rogers or Mr. Cowan. You should do very well in this business."

In fact, the author of "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?" is eager to dispel the conventional view of the PR industry as a hype machine. It is a common misconception, Mr. Bragman says, that PR executives are involved in the unsavory business of exaggerating the value of their clients or their clients' products. Braggadocio is a thing of the past, apparently. Nowadays, the press agent's job is to make sure his clients always tell the truth, thereby guaranteeing that the public has a clear grasp of their strengths and weaknesses. "A good PR person monitors the relationship between perception and reality and keeps things in check," he writes.

Complete rubbish, of course, but Mr. Bragman evidently feels obliged to cast his profession in a positive light precisely because he has done so well. As one of the founders of the largest entertainment PR firm in the world, Bragman Nyman Cafarelli, not to mention the chief executive of Fifteen Minutes, a new company he set up after selling his first one, Mr. Bragman has become a spokesperson for the industry. As a result, he engages in a good deal of hype about his profession (see above), thereby breaking the very rule he enunciates.

Luckily, these pieties only take up a small percentage of "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?" The purpose of the book, Mr. Bragman tells us, is to help ordinary people gain recognition for themselves or their businesses by using some of the techniques that he and his colleagues use to promote their big-name clients. Since nearly all of these stratagems involve a degree of flimflam or chicanery, much of his advice contradicts the wholesome image of PR he is keen to promote, lending the book an unintentionally comic aspect.

After going on at length about the importance of always telling the truth -- "if we want our image soufflé to rise -- the most important thing is authenticity" -- he boasts about convincing the Associated Press that actress Elizabeth Montgomery was five years younger than she was. Among the tried-and-tested PR tricks he recommends are creating "non-controversial controversies" (in which he'll encourage his clients to get involved in disputes purely for the sake of publicity) and massaging statistics to create the impression that a movie or a soft drink is more successful than it really is. "It's just show biz," he says.

Some of the funniest passages in "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?" occur when Mr. Bragman inadvertently slips into PR blather. "Leeza Gibbons has an image book that is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen," he writes of the former talk-show host's leather-bound volume of press clippings. It is probably safe to assume that he is not a frequent visitor to the Getty Museum.

Just how much use will ordinary people -- "civilians," in show-biz parlance -- be able to make of all this? Throughout the book, Mr. Bragman attempts to draw conclusions that he imagines will be helpful to his ideal reader, whom he describes as a city councilman in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "If you've got the money, if you've got a sensible idea, if you're passionate, or if this project represents a step on the path to greater things, then go for it," he says. "It's time for your fifteen minutes."

Much of the advice Mr. Bragman offers is fairly obvious. "A 400-pound doctor with a diet book may want to think about hiring a spokesperson," he writes. Other pearls of wisdom include: "Your web site must be easy to navigate"; "Humor is a wonderful ice breaker in a speech"; "For men, a bad toupee or a comb-over just won't cut it anymore"; and "Everybody wants to feel important -- that's one of the most fundamental lessons I can pass along."

It is hard to imagine anyone -- even a city councilman in Cedar Rapids -- being so naïve that he or she would learn anything from Mr. Bragman's platitudes. Having said that, if the bailout-seeking chief executive of General Motors didn't realize that flying to Washington on a private jet would attract negative press, perhaps everyone can benefit from PR 101.

Mr. Bragman is more interesting when he is giving us the inside dope on his celebrity clients. For instance, in the chapter on throwing parties he reveals that any Hollywood star can be persuaded to show up at your event if the price is right. "The minimum to get in the door with a major celebrity is two first-class plane tickets, limo pickup at the airport, a suite at a decent hotel, and -- for a female celebrity -- hair and makeup," he writes. Good to know, but not much use if you're hosting a fund-raiser for the local public school.

To be fair, "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?" does contain some useful nuggets. "No matter where you're getting your message out, be sure that your most important stakeholders hear it from you first -- before it hits the media," he advises. "People hate reading things in the newspaper before they hear it from the boss." Many CEOs could have saved themselves embarrassment by following that advice.

Mr. Bragman is also big enough to admit that he occasionally makes mistakes. At the time that "Schindler's List" came out he had a client named Schindler who was trying to sell a large contemporary house. At Mr. Bragman's suggestion, he took out an ad in the Hollywood Reporter on the day of the film's release headed "Schindler's Listing." The following day, an article ridiculing the ad as a tasteless stunt ended up on the front page of the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times. It wasn't the sort of 15 minutes of fame the PR man's client had in mind.

Mr. Young is currently appearing as a judge on "Top Chef," a food reality show on Bravo.