Ken Sunshine’s Sunshine & Sachs PR agency isn’t in the industry directories. Sunshine doesn’t blog. He doesn’t even have a Web site. He’s been known to turn down A-list celebrities calling for his help. “We don’t play it safe, we’re not genteel,” he says. “We name names and battle the media when we have to.”
As Sunshine sees it, his passion and his ability to fight for those he represents are what attracts new business, though his client list full of marquee names doesn’t hurt. He’s worked with Barbra Streisand, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Moore, and Justin Timberlake, though if you question him about his celeb clients, he’ll cut stop you in your tracks: “Look, we don’t need to get into that.”
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He prefers keeping the conversation to his nonprofit clients such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Calvary Hospital, and the New York Organ Donor Network. We spoke with him about how he’s forged his business by fusing celebrity representation with political interests, and why he doesn’t shy away from tangling with the tabloids.
Did you head to a PR agency when you graduated from Cornell?
No, I began my career at a social service agency on Long Island working with troubled teens. I got sucked into Democratic Party politics soon after.
I was elected as a George McGovern delegate and went to the DNC convention in Miami 1972.
How did you get involved in celebrity PR?
After working on a host of campaigns — local and presidential — in the 70s and 80s, I got sick of the Republicans winning everything and took a job as a junior publicist at ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers).
It was great. I stayed politically active and got to work with some of the biggest entertainers of that era.
Why did you decide to return to politics?
I got a call from David Dinkins. I believed in what he was doing and agreed to give him a year of my life. I moved up from campaign aide to chief of staff when he was elected the first black mayor of New York in 1989.
Who/what were your breakthrough clients ?
The Democratic National Convention when it came to New York in 1992 and Barbra Streisand.
What are you working on lately?
I represent Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. I have to play the heavy in their battle with the insurance companies.
They’re a great example of the best of the Catholic Church. They do pioneering work in cancer treatment and pain management. Ken Raske and the late John Cardinal O’Connor got me involved. Frank Calamari [Calvary’s CEO] and Dr. Michael Brescia (medical director) are saints.
My work with the New York Organ Donor Network is important, too. There’s such a low percentage of donors in this city.
These are the things that are important to me.
How does your celebrity work fit in?
I’m very interested in music and entertainment. Many of [Sunshine & Sachs’] clients have causes, like Leonardo DiCaprio, and filmmakers like Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price).
We’re relatively small and everyone here has interests and passion. While big agencies see opportunity to do crisis work for Wal-Mart, we’d rather work with a guy like Greenwald who goes after them.
You keep clients for a long time. What are you doing to make them happy?
I can’t seem to get rid of them!
It’s great to work with people for a long time. You can build something bigger and focus on what they care about.
You’ve been quoted on CNN as saying the tabloids are out of control. Are you biting the hand that feeds you?
My clients hate being in the tabloids. People like Affleck and DiCaprio were being absolutely hounded and I had to do something.
I was the only one talking about the outrageous conflicts of interests in [the PR] business. There are firms trading secrets of their A-list clients to bump up their B- and C-level clients — it’s terrible.
And the low level of sophistication of these PR people in L.A. is shocking. If I never went on TV to talk about this again, I’d be happy. My clients respect my position and I get the pick of the litter.
You don’t like being on TV?
Publicity for yourself isn’t the best way to get clients.
It does attract some but it’s hardly the reason I do it. If it’s something my clients feel deeply about, I will. It’s not the best use of my time — I turn down most media requests.
Did your business falter when the Republicans took over in 2000?
No, actually we’ve had rapid growth over the last seven years. We’re not invited to anything that’s happening in Washington, so we’re able to focus on our work. We weren’t dependent on dot-com money, either.
What are your methods for dealing with the media?
We always joke at the firm that the press is always right. There will always be a next time. Sometimes you have to go toe-to-toe with them but I know how to pick my [battles].
That’s the difference.
There’s an approach [that falls between] between kissing ass and getting angry. Our people know their stuff and work hard to temper negative coverage, rather than get mad. The media won’t respect you if you lose it too often.
Tips on building a PR clientele you can get behind:
1) Work on what interests you, and don’t be so corporate.
Fight the companies who are exploiting people and polluting the environment.
2) The worst thing you can do is to complain to your clients about the media.
Take the time to counsel your clients and tell them why something is not working.
3) Be knowledgeable.
The journalists you’re pitching will respect you.
4) If you’re starting an agency, don’t bother with a cattle call approach to new business pitches.
Focus on the areas you know, and aspire to earn the respect of the people you want to work with.
5) Be passionate.
It will help your career. Go with the underdog.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.