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So What Do You Do, Howard Bragman, Fifteen Minutes Public Relations CEO?

'The metabolism of the media has gone berserk'

By Julie Haire - January 21, 2009
While Howard Bragman fashions himself an outsider (he often cites growing up fat, Jewish and gay in Flint, Michigan), he has been operating on the inside for a long time -- at least when it comes to the peculiar vagaries of entertainment publicity.

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Bragman started out in journalism but turned to PR when it looked like his only option was working for a magazine about guns. He worked for a smaller PR firm in Chicago before joining Burson-Marsteller, which was then in its heyday as the most influential PR firm in the world. He transferred with Burson to Los Angeles, ultimately striking out on his own and founding Bragman Nyman Cafarelli in 1989.

After growing BNC to the largest entertainment PR firm in the world, he sold it in 2000. In 2003, he started anew with Fifteen Minutes, a boutique firm that specializes in not only crisis management but celebrity representation (for Paula Abdul, Ed McMahon and Mischa Barton, among others), media training and brand management.

Bragman also writes a regular column for The Huffington Post and serves as a go-to guy for media outlets looking for an expert's take on the dish du jour (Sarah Palin, bidding wars for celebrity baby pictures). His upcoming book, Where's My Fifteen Minutes?, details how anyone can use PR to their own advantage.

Name: Howard Bragman
Position: Chairman and CEO, Fifteen Minutes Public Relations
Resume: Author; media pundit; adjunct rofessor at the Annenberg School for Communications and The University of Southern California; crisis counselor; publicist; mentor
Birthday: February 24, 1956
Hometown: Flint, Michigan
Education: B.A, The University of Michigan, School of Literature, Science and the Arts, 1978
Marital status: Married (Unless or until the courts or the voters of California try to take it away)
First section of the Sunday Times: Style
Favorite TV show: Unscripted, Project Runway; Scripted, Weeds
Guilty pleasure: Weeds (not the TV show)
Last book read: Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence -- and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene M. Pepperbert

Describe how you originally got into PR.
I was lucky to get into it; I didn't know what it was when I graduated college, really. I got a job at Rogers Park Publisher in Chicago and this guy put out a magazine called Chicago Elite, and it was society and culture and arts. I'm this young gay guy who's just graduated college and I'm thinking, "This is a pretty good place." He basically put out a gun magazine for gun dealers, and his wife wanted to go to a better caliber of parties, so they started this society magazine. [But] they're closing after a year; they're losing their shirt. So they said, "Do you want to work at the gun magazine?" And I'm like, "I'm a nice Jewish boy, I'm not working at a gun magazine." So I said I'm going to try to go into PR -- these people pitch me stories and they don't even read the magazine. It can't be that hard.

I got a PR job with this small firm in Chicago, it was probably 25 people. Right after I got there, they got the Anheuser-Busch account -- the Budweiser account for 10 states, the whole Midwest. There was this senior woman working on [the account] and it didn't work out, and I'm this kid with less than a year in PR doing the Anheuser Busch account for 10 states. I'm doing events and celebrities and news -- it was just like an MBA in PR.

After three years of that, I was at the snowmobile races in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, it was 25 below zero, and I was like, "OK, I get it -- next!" I went to work for Burson-Marsteller -- at the time it was the biggest firm in the world. I was there in Chicago, and they moved me to LA. I didn't feel like Burson was well-branded in the LA marketplace, and I was frustrated. I saved up enough money, went in the back of my house, and opened a PR firm. I figured if I didn't make it in six months, I'd get a job. And it took off. I brought in multiple partners and it became Bragman Nyman Cafarelli.

I sold it in the end of 2000, worked there for a year, and I realized it wasn't really a good idea for me to be an employee. There's a lot of things I do in a business that publicly traded companies don't do. I'm better as an entrepreneur.

What is it about your personality that makes you well-suited to PR?
You know what, I say "15 Minutes" and people think it has to do with Andy Warhol and fame and all that -- it's my attention span. [laughs] No, not really. When I used to do standardized tests as a kid, I would flatline it. I could do well in a lot of different subjects. The thing that I feel I'm an idiot savant about is doing PR; it was the perfect gig for me.

"If you don't define yourself to the world, somebody else is going to define you -- and you're probably not going to like it as much as if you did it yourself."

So it's being well-rounded in a sense?
My mantra, and the essence of the book, is really that we all have images -- whether we think we do or not. You don't have to be Angelina Jolie to have an image. You've got a Facebook page, or you're the president of the PTA, you're trying to clean up a river or run a dry cleaners; we all have something that we want to get out there. If you don't define yourself to the world, somebody else is going to define you -- and you're probably not going to like it as much as if you did it yourself.

Did you see that recent study that the MacArthur Foundation did about teenagers and the Internet? It said that one of the skills that kids are learning is to deal with their own public image. And in this millennium, and certainly the first part of this millennium, a public image is a very, very, very big thing. And you can't just manage a public image, you have to communicate with your fans and buyers, and you have a different responsibility. Just because you don't want to become Internet savvy and deal with the world that way doesn't mean you get to. The rest of the world is, and they're going to pass you by.

How you think your role and public relations' role has changed since you started, in terms of the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet?
The metabolism of the media has gone berserk, meaning the speed at which things happen. You used to have time to take a breath, see what was going on, get the big picture. Now you barely have time to do that -- then the video's on TV. They're digging this hole for you so quickly. I've never seen reputations shattered so quickly in this world. Did you see how stunningly quick the governor of New York went down? A very powerful man -- did you see how quickly that happened?

I have a story in the book about Howard Dean, and I talk about what the media did to his presidential campaign. What happened was he was at an event and he was screaming, and they made it look like he was a crazy man. But they were playing the ISO mic. If you played the same sounds you heard as if you were in the room, you couldn't even hear the man it was so loud in there. It's like altering a photograph. I felt it was really offensive. Howard's probably one of the most rational people you'll ever meet in your whole life, and for them to portray him as something other than that -- I thought the media screwed up there. The media can screw up very quickly because it seems to me many media outlets are more interested in speed than they are in accuracy.

I like journalistic standards. I'd rather take a breath and get the story right rather than get it out quickly. This is the way the world is now. I can't bury my head in the sand. And the Internet has great value because, trust me, there ain't a lot of print space left, you know? When you've got to get publicity for a client, and they're paying you because they want to get their image out there, you don't have the same opportunities you did 10 years ago.

"There's a lot of PR people in this town who seem to be proud that they're inaccessible. I'm sort of proud of the opposite."

What have you learned in dealing with the media, in terms of the best approach to meet your goals and also help journalists meet their goals?
Number one is have a sense of humor. I used to represent LA Gear when they were having a spate of bad publicity, before they got into real trouble. A story in Business Week appeared, and it was a bad story, and I'm like, "Oh shit, this is not pretty." My business was less than a year old, and I thought, "My business is going to go down, and I'm going to be unemployed." I was telling a friend and he said, "Howard, it's tennis shoes." Most of the time, it's tennis shoes. Sometimes it's not; sometimes it's a client who's dying from a disease, or a client who's losing a house, or a client who's been accused of something. I know what's really serious, and I know what needs to be done.

In terms of dealing with the media, I believe integrity is very important, and I'm pretty proud of my reputation. I'm in the communications business. There's a lot of PR people in this town who seem to be proud that they're inaccessible. You can't talk to them and they don't return emails, and I'm sort of proud of the opposite. If a journalist approaches me, even if it's a "Sorry, we're going to pass on that," they'll generally get a communication from me.

You've represented a few celebrities in some tough situations, like Isaiah Washington through the homophobic slur flap and Mischa Barton and her DUI. In crisis PR, what is it absolutely essential not to do?
Not to do what I did with Isaiah Washington. [laughs] We had just found out that ABC was not renewing his contract, and I needed to make a statement to the media. And I'm saying right here what I said on the record and what I stand by today. I'm very good friends with the PR people at ABC, but I didn't appreciate the way that was handled.

We were told he wasn't getting renewed, and then we were told there was a call coming from People magazine within 15 minutes. It wasn't even like, "Isaiah, we're not renewing your contract, let's come up with a statement." We weren't given that opportunity; we had literally 15 minutes. And I wanted to say something about the irony of the situation, and all I could think of was the movie Network: Peter Finch out the window screaming, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it!" And there were so many reasons he shouldn't have lost his job, okay? And if they wanted to fire the guy, he had offered to quit when everything happened. He said, "I don't want to be a distraction to the show. I'm happy to leave." And they wouldn't do it then, it was just -- I felt bad for him.

I think my client is not perfect, but I know in my heart of hearts -- I know this man pretty well, we spent a lot of time [together] -- he may be a lot of things, but he's not homophobic. If I truly thought he was homophobic, I wouldn't have represented him. His mother used to be a cleaning lady for a Jewish family in Houston, and I was at a dinner party at his house, and his gay decorator was there and I'm there, you know -- and the next day we had a breakfast meeting and he said, "I told you I know more gay people than you and I speak better Yiddish than you." And it's true.

So I made the statement, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it!" Unfortunately, it reinforced the angry black man stereotype -- and I played into it, and it worked against me. Ultimately, I think Isaiah came out pretty well, and he got work right after... [The experience] could have been an episode of a TV series on PR.

"We used to talk about crisis control. Now it's crisis management. You can't control the blogosphere and the Internet. I could maybe corral it."

There is sometimes tension between journalists and PR people. In your experience how does that play out? What should PR people do to avoid or thwart that?
Listen, I still come from a time where PR people need media people. I'm not a bully PR person, and I think those times are gone. I think there was a few years when if you were a big celebrity publicist you could use the bully pulpit to rule. You could say, "If you write something bad about my clients..." Well, guess what?

We used to talk about crisis control. Now it's crisis management. You can't control the blogosphere and the Internet. I could maybe corral it. I could maybe get it to flow into the ocean like lava to a place where it's not going to do too much damage. But I can't stop it. There's ways to bury it once it's out there. There's tricks of the trade, but it's a different world.

I've never looked at it as a contentious relationship. Some of my dearest friends are journalists. I think we're all communicators. All I've got to do is figure out what you're trying to do and make your life easy. One of my friends calls me "Quotetron" -- "I saw you in The New York Times today, Quotetron." I think I'm like a character out of Network because I speak in sound bites. I think I just watched a little bit too much TV as a kid and that's what happened. But I have a face for radio, that's the problem. I've enjoyed the concept of putting a face on PR and telling people how it works.

Your book aims to teach readers how they can make public relations work for them in their own lives.
Whether they want to do it for their own career, if they have a skill or something they want to promote -- it's for people who want to go to the next level. PR no longer stands for public relations. It stands for perception and reality. And the job of the PR person is always, always, always to manage the relationship between perception and reality. The concept is like the scales of justice, and you've got perception on one side and reality on the other -- you want them in balance. Because if perception exceeds reality, we call that hype -- or Dr. Phil. And that means the wind's going to come under your balloon and the balloon's going to pop. As I always say, you want a career made in a crock pot, not a microwave.

If your reality exceeds your perception -- that's what most people come to me and say, "I'm a great doctor and nobody knows it." Or "I have a business and my competitor keeps getting quoted. Why?" When they're not in stasis, you get cognitive dissonance. That little feeling in the pit of your stomach that things don't always match up the way they're supposed to. It's important to understand because if you're working on someone's image, you have to start with the perception of where it's at, even if it's not accurate. If I've got a client that's got a perception challenge or they want to change the perception or modify it, I've got to start where we're starting. I've got a baseline I have to work from.

Along with the speed of the media, that's one of the most important things that's out there. People have got to use the Internet, they've got to read a lot of things. We all tend to get [lost] in our little wormy worlds. So if you're a Democrat, you read The New York Times and you go to the Daily Kos and you read The Huffington Post, but you don't go to Drudge Report, you don't go to the right-wing places. And it's silly. Because I don't [care] how right- or left-wing you are, you might as well read what the enemy's saying about you.

I think the gay community just lost Prop 8 because they ran a horrible campaign. I don't want to say we deserved to lose because we don't deserve to lose our civil rights, but we could have won if we'd run a smarter campaign.

What would you have done differently if you were running it?
It's been well-documented and I'm no expert, but it was a top-down campaign, meaning, "Donate money and we'll make all the decisions and basically buy advertising," as opposed to a bottom-up campaign, which is what Obama ran. [A bottom-up campaign] is one that motivates people, getting them to knock on doors and make phone calls. The gay community didn't do a good job. They did a good job of fundraising.

We had mediocre advertising. We were always on the defensive, and we were too busy being politically correct to protect our civil rights in the right way. I've been involved in the gay and lesbian issue in the media for 20-something years. My first client sued the Naval Academy because he was gay. It was pro-bono and the first client I took when I started my first company, and I've always been involved. I just know this is another speed bump.

What I do think Prop 8 did was, I think there's a whole group of people, probably under 35, who didn't see the worst of the AIDS ravages and don't remember a time when gays were invisible or all depictions of gays were homophobic. Well, I do. And all of the sudden they said, "The world's not perfect, and there's homophobes out there." When I went to some of the marches, I saw a lot of the young people, and I thought that was really cool.

But it's just bullshit. I've paid many millions of taxes to the government. I'm happy to take less civil rights, just tax me less. [laughs]

You do a lot of different PR, and part of your portfolio is helping well-known people come out, like WNBA player Sheryl Swoopes and Bewitched's Dick Sergeant. What are the particular PR challenges that you face when you take on these?
In this day and age, coming out is a metaphor. It's a metaphor for Patrick Swayze coming out that he has cancer, Arthur Ashe coming out with the fact that he has AIDS, or somebody coming out that they got married or divorced, or a life-changing situation. It's just a metaphor for getting ahead of the information curve, but putting it out there in a controlled way before it gets out there in an uncontrolled way. What's most interesting about coming out is it's non-formulaic, I promise you, because every situation's different. One's got a book to sell, one's got a message to get out, one's doing it for an endorsement, one's a diva, you know -- they['ve] all got different reasons.

I've always made sure that I do mainstream and gay media when I do it. There's people who come out in the mainstream media and have not given the gay media their due, and I think that's sort of wrong. I've done it different ways. When [former NBA player] John Amaechi came out two years ago, we did a week of interviews and then [former NBA player] Tim Hardaway made his homophobic comment, and we went nuclear with this thing. It was huge -- for a guy who was a journeyman basketball player but wasn't a superstar by any stretch, and he'll be the first to admit it. With Rosie Jones, the golfer, we did it in an op-ed piece.

After being in the business for over 25 years, is there anything that still shocks you?
Just humanity. Humanity is pretty interesting. I'm at a point where I can see irony in a lot of things. If you grow up fat, Jewish and gay in Flint, Michigan, and were born when I was born, and you don't see irony in the world, you're going to have a lot of problems, okay? I can find the humor in things, but truly shocked? My grandmother had a saying for it: We do things to ourselves that our worst enemies wouldn't do. I think there's a lot of truth to that; usually our worst enemy is ourselves. There's been phone calls that have truly shocked -- I will admit it, and I'm not going to say which ones, but I admit it.

So it's still possible.
It's still possible. I'm not that hardened. I'm still a kid from the Midwest -- albeit a twisted one.

Julie Haire is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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