Being a talented artist is just one part of making it big in Hollywood: Today’s A-listers also have to take the right projects, be seen with the right people, and say the right things when a microphone is in their face. And to keep this area of their career running smoothly, most stars turn to publicists for help.
Publicists are the invisible forces who help turn charming celebrities into blockbuster brands. A publicist’s work exposes them to aspects of the industry that most of us rarely see—from secret scandals to racism on the red carpet—but their expertise is invaluable in the world of entertainment. Here’s what several celebrity publicists had to say about the work they do behind the scenes.
Some colleges do offer degrees in public relations, but they’re not required to land a job in the field. Annie Jeeves, the head publicist and founder of Cinematic Red PR, went to school for communications and says many of her colleagues took different avenues into the profession. “They didn’t study it. They just fell into it,” Jeeves tells Mental Floss. “They came from an acting background, or a writing background, a you-name-it background. Very few people, at least of my generation, actually studied it in school.”
Geoff Harris, who is going by a pseudonym for this article, works for a private entertainment PR firm today, and his entry into the publicity world came from a part-time job during his college years. “My side job was working at United Artists theaters, and I worked at the Criterion [movie theater in New York] specifically,” he tells Mental Floss. “We used to run all kinds of screenings, and I met one of the field publicists for one of the big studios […] and eventually he was like, ‘Hey, well you know our offices are looking for a clerk.’ This was in the publicity department of one of the major studios, and it was like a really cool position to start at—start at the bottom and work your way up.”
Every professional we spoke with has had to deal with a publicity disaster at some point in their career. Laura Greene, who is also going by a pseudonym for this article, is the president and founder of her own PR firm, and she’s seen most of the headline-making scandals you can imagine. “You name it, I’ve had to deal with it,” she tells Mental Floss. “Anything from DUIs, going to jail, cheating on a spouse, violent behavior that needed to go away. The list goes on.”
Jeeves recalls a holiday weekend being interrupted by a breaking news story involving one of her clients. “I turned on my TV to footage from CNN—without going into any of the details of it—that almost instantaneously I identified as the film I was working on that I was not on set for,” she says. “No one ever escapes crisis […] It always makes you slightly vomitous—if you had any appetite that day, congratulations, it’s now gone.”
One popular protocol publicists use for dealing with disasters is to limit communications and keep their clients quiet.
Jeeves says that when she saw that project she was working for on the news, “my phone began to ring […] That was the first time I had to have my phone shut down, which means they send everyone to voicemail or to email. No one gets to talk to you who isn’t the client or the client’s lawyers or producers in that space.”
Harris tells his clients to follow this approach in worst-case scenarios. “My advice has always been to shut down, don’t say anything else,” he says. “Consult with your team, and consult before you post anything, moving forward.”
When working with clients from underrepresented backgrounds, publicists witness Hollywood’s racism firsthand. “What nobody told me was that if I had a client who was Black or Brown, or just some other race besides white, I was typically going to have to be prepared to fight and advocate for them twice as hard as my other clients,” Joy Donnell, a former entertainment publicist, tells Mental Floss.
This wasn’t just the case when finding opportunities for her clients—even after one of her clients worked on a major film, Donnell still had trouble securing her the recognition she deserved. “I was taking a client, who happens to be a Black woman, and she was in an Oscar-nominated movie, and we are literally on the red carpet for an event. And before we get onto the carpet, a white-bodied woman, who I did not know […] steps onto the carpet. And everybody in the press corps starts taking photos of her,” she recalls. “I literally heard the photographers talking to each other saying, ‘Do you know who that was? Who was that?’ So then I step onto the carpet with my client, who is dressed beautifully, and basically everyone was just looking at us. It was this horrifying moment where I realized they were not trying to pick up their cameras to take a picture of her because she was not one of the three Black women that they considered to be important.”
Luckily, Donnell was able to turn the situation around. She communicated nonverbally to her allies in the press, who recognized what was happening and hyped up the actress with the other photographers. Though a disaster was averted, the story highlights how even the most successful Black women have to deal with racism in show business.
“I found out once I got inside the party that the white woman that everybody was taking pictures of, she was not even an actress,” Donnell says. “She was a guest of a guest, and everybody got excited about her because of how she looked race-wise […] So you’re playing this whole other level of strategy and mental gymnastics on the carpet, and no one really prepared me for that.”
In addition to advocating for her BIPOC clients, Donnell also had to fight for herself as a Black woman in a white-dominated industry. “I would end up in a lot of situations where I was getting this weirdness back,”
she says, recalling meetings where a manager would ask her “if I could represent people who are not Black; if I have the talent or the ability to do that.”
Following her experiences in publicity, Donnell co-founded the Center for Intersectional Media + Entertainment, or CIME, an organization dedicated to the advancement of intersectional representation in film and television. “It’s about representation,” she says, describing the project, “and looking at the stories that we inherited, things that never got course-corrected, and how we can go about creating more restorative narratives.”
Though their job takes them to film festivals, award shows, and Hollywood parties, publicists don’t feel like the celebrities they’re paid to represent. “I joke that we’re an overdressed valet waiting for the car,” Jeeves says.
Their feelings about their work rarely align with other people’s perceptions—even those closest to them. “All of my friends think what I do is so glamorous and so much fun, like they can’t understand why I’m happy when I don’t have to go to the Cannes Film Festival,” Greene explains. “I love it for work, but it’s not something I want to do when I’m not working [because] it’s work.”
According to Harris, if people could see the work that takes place off the red carpet, these misconceptions would be less common: “I’ve waited in millions of curbside dark alleys, waiting for clients to get out of limos, and run to get special requests in rain. There’s a lot of unflattering things I’ve had to do throughout the years.”
You may assume that having a friend in entertainment PR gives you access to the hottest Hollywood gossip—but that isn’t the case. When a publicist hears a sensitive piece of information, they know to push it out of their mind. “At a certain point in my career, you would overhear things, or something might be kind of peripheral to a client,” Jeeves says. “And obviously if it was something you wanted to make sure didn’t get leaked out, you knew to forget what you needed to forget. So when things would break a couple of months later, at that point my brain would be like, ‘Oh right, I remember that’ […] You just got very good at learning to do that and having a poker face because you certainly don’t want to ever create a situation for anyone, for yourself or a fellow industry mate.”
A publicist’s guidance is only valuable when their client takes it, and according to Greene, it’s not always easy to convince them to listen. “You really have to be on the same page as the client,” she says. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink. You can give all the best advice in the world, but the client also has to be willing to take it and do it. And most of my clients in my past have, but some of them don’t. They don’t necessarily do what’s good for them or the overall benefit to their career.”
To an A-lister who’s only been told what they want to hear, receiving the harsh truth from their publicist can be jarring. According to Harris, these uncomfortable conversations are unavoidable. “There are [clients] that have to sort of be prodded and told like, ‘Hey man, listen, I don’t know if this is the correct way.’ And a lot of people are afraid to speak up. Some people want to be surrounded by yes men, but I think you got to be truthful and honest and keep it real, and if your client is out of line you got to let them know, because you’re going to go farther down the rabbit hole if you don’t.”
If you live by plans and schedules, entertainment publicity isn’t the right field for you. “You can’t predict when a client gets pulled over and is drinking and driving; you can’t predict when a client needs you,” Greene says. “When they want you and they’re paying for you, you have to be there. You can’t offer a service and make somebody pay for it and not deliver that service […] It’s not a nine-to-fiver.”
Donnell agrees that being a publicist requires spontaneity. This skill is just as vital when seizing an opportunity as it is when responding to a crisis. “I’ve found that you can only have about 75 percent of a strategy and the other 25 percent had to just be kismet,” she says. “[It] could never be a rigid plan; you always [have] to keep it very fluid, and be ready to roll with what comes along sometimes—and that doesn’t even have to be a crisis situation. That could be something spectacular that you never knew was going to be an option when you went about putting the plan together.”
While the digital transition was difficult for some veteran publicists, others welcomed the change. It’s much easier to secure a 4000-word feature on a website than in a magazine with limited page space, after all. And for Greene, even something as simple as email has made her job less strenuous. “Thank god I’m not licking and sticking stamps to send out old-fashioned press kits. Or coming out of Xerox machines and spending a fortune on messengers,” she says. “I love all the changes and I embrace the changes and I think it’s great.”
The internet also gives celebrities direct access to their fans and vice-versa. From a publicist’s perspective, this isn’t always a good thing. “I have dealt with helping out clients who have been derailed and said the wrong things on social media that were inappropriate […] Since the internet came on, that’s been a big challenge for I’m sure tons of publicists,” Harris says.
A modern publicist’s duties don’t typically include manufacturing relationships for their famous clients, though this isn’t unheard of. According to Greene, fake celebrity couples were more common during Hollywood’s Golden Age. “I think it’s a little more old Hollywood than it is new Hollywood,” she says. “There has to be a certain level of authenticity with what you’re going to suggest to do with your client or it doesn’t work. […] [It’s] not like those olden days where you’re Cary Grant and you’re dating some female movie star to prove you were in a relationship when you clearly weren’t.”
Hollywood has a reputation as a cutthroat industry, but at least on the publicity side of show business, that typically isn’t accurate. According to Jeeves, publicists are quick to offer their peers guidance—or a sympathetic ear. When her phone lit up the day her client was in a crisis, many of those calls were from colleagues checking in on her.
“A lot of people who were my seniors, who were veteran publicists when I was dealing with that particular instance, they would stop and poke their head in,” she says. “My fellow publicists, we are an incredible community for one another. And I don’t think people realize that. Yes, there is competition […] but I don’t think we look at each other that way. We look at each other as colleagues, and if we need to lean in and ask questions and get guidance, we know that we can.”