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Explaining Hollywood: How to get a job as a publicist

An up-and-coming star lands a role on a television show, suddenly graces the cover of a major magazine and gains a million Instagram followers. A celebrity is photographed by paparazzi in a park where she just happens to be all glammed up. An actor becomes the face of an emerging social justice movement.

From the outside, it’s fun to believe in the Hollywood fantasy that these things just magically happen. But it takes a lot of work and planning to carve out a public persona and to get that story in front of a large audience. That’s where a publicist comes in.

Unlike advertisers who pay others to run their promotions, publicists specialize in “earned media,” said Annalee Paulo, executive vice president at 42West. Their role is to pitch ideas and persuade people (media, celebrities, influencers) to help them share information more widely.

An important part of the work is talking with clients, said Erica Tucker, owner and founder of Ascend PR Group. “What do you want to do? What do you want to be known for? And how are we going to get there, step by step?”

Tucker sees her job as helping people shape their legacies. The behind-the-scenes stories of Hollywood are often written by journalists but nurtured and strategized by publicists.

In Hollywood, some publicists work for talent — that is, actors, directors and other people who work in front of or behind the camera. Some are hired by studios or streaming services. Others promote specific films, television shows or digital media projects. There are also some who specialize in multicultural marketing; for example, when Marvel prepared to release its first-ever Asian American superhero film, there was specific outreach to Asian American journalists, influencers and other movers-and-shakers to get the buzz going before the regular press cycle started.

How do you know if being a Hollywood publicist could be a good career for you? Here, three veterans of the trade — Tucker, Paulo and David Magdael, founder and president of David Magdael & Associates Inc. — break down what the job entails and how to get started. Spoiler alert: It’s more than just walking down red carpets with a clipboard!

Who becomes a publicist?

“Whenever I’m asked this question,” Paulo said, “I jokingly say, ‘Publicists are people who like organizing other people’s chaos.’”

They’re people who enjoy socializing and connecting, but they also need to be good at thinking strategically about their client’s image or message. What are the publications that will help get this story out there? Who are the journalists who will understand the mission of this project? What kind of image does this person want to project in that photo shoot? And what do you do when someone, inevitably, messes up publicly and needs some damage control?

“Clients look to you for your expertise in guiding them through an ever-changing media landscape, which can be anxiety-inducing,” Paulo said. “It helps to have a nurturer, therapist streak in your personality.”

Publicists also are people who live and breathe entertainment, said Magdael, whose firm focuses mainly on documentary films.

For many publicists, it’s not a 40-hour, 9-to-5 job. There are events on evenings and weekends. If you’re representing a film, you’re often traveling to different film festivals. Even when he’s not promoting a particular project, Magdael watches movies constantly so he can understand the trends and what his clients are competing against for people’s attention.

Finally, publicists are good writers, devoting a lot of their time to writing pitches and press releases. This is why publicity is often an appealing draw for writers in other lines of work who want a more stable job. Many jobs in the entertainment industry involve hopping from gig to gig, but working in publicity has a pretty straightforward career path.

“It’s good for someone who likes the stability and structure of a desk job with bursts of excitement in between that break up the monotony,” said Paulo.

How do you get started?

Traditionally, you start with an internship. To get one, it helps to know someone who has one — but that’s not the only way.

Tucker, Magdael and Paulo all come from families with no ties to the entertainment industry. “I had no idea ‘publicist’ was a job that existed,” said Paulo.

Raised in North Carolina, Tucker was working for an insurance company when her friend got an entertainment internship in Los Angeles and convinced her to come out here. Paulo started with an internship at MGM Studios, also after hearing about it from a friend.

If you don’t have intern friends, Paulo recommends contacting college career centers, looking up trainee programs from big studios, or even cold-calling and emailing organizations.

“If you have zero idea how to break in, it might help to follow a movie, show or filmmaker you love and do a little internet digging as to what studio, network or production company is behind them,” she said. “Then research the company to see if they have any internship prospects.”

Another way to gain experience, she said, is to volunteer with the marketing or talent relations department at a local film festival or large community event, such as a concert, fair or live theater venue.

Magdael, who is also the co-director of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, had a more unconventional path into entertainment publicity. He was doing healthcare-related PR, working with children’s hospitals and a pediatric AIDS nonprofit. But on the side, he had a passion for movies and volunteered for Visual Communications, the organization behind the Asian Pacific film fest.

His first experiment with publicity was helping Keiko Ibi, then a film grad student, when she got nominated for a documentary short Oscar for “The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years.” It resulted in a surprise win in 1999. That gave him the confidence — and more opportunities — to run media campaigns for other projects and eventually start his own company.

So another option is to start with a communications job in an unrelated field. While Magdael had to learn a new industry, he already had many of the basic publicity skills. Tucker worked in marketing for a home builder before getting her first job as a Hollywood publicity assistant.

And then it’s about making friends.

“Every position I’ve had in my career has been by referral, and those early connections got me to where I am today,” she said. “The entertainment world is a small one, and many of the people I met [in my early internships] are now my colleagues and co-workers.”

What are the career paths?

The entry-level position for a Hollywood publicist is an assistant. Tucker estimates that most people spend two to three years as assistants, doing a lot of grunt work.

She jokes that she refuses to go to Fred Segal or order arugula salads anymore because of the years she spent running errands as an assistant. But that’s also where she learned how everything worked.

“After you’ve proven yourself and gained experience, the next step is coordinator or junior publicist, then publicist, followed by senior dublicist, director, vice president, then president,” said Paulo. “Different companies have different titles, but that’s the general career ladder.”

It’s also possible to jump among focuses because there is a lot of overlap, said Magdael. For example, someone who has experience as a celebrity publicist is probably also quite familiar with how media campaigns for film projects are run.

When Tucker was at her previous company, she had to decide whether to continue moving up the ladder or start her own company.

She started Ascend PR Group in 2015 with only one client: actress Yara Shahidi of “black-ish” and “grown-ish.” She helped Shahidi develop her platform advocating for girls’ education while also promoting her persona as a young fashion icon.

There are pros and cons to starting your own company, Tucker said. She loves the flexibility of picking and choosing her clients and projects. She’s also able to personalize her services instead of having to abide by restrictions ingrained in more established firms.

But bigger companies have more resources, and you might be exposed to a lot more types of projects and greater variety of opportunities, she said.

There’s also the issue of money. “While studios and [streaming services] often pay good salaries to those on staff, the independent PR firms still struggle with a fee structure that has not changed in over 30 years,” said Paulo.

How do you make money? (And what kind of money?)

“Agencies charge clients a monthly retainer, and their employees generally make a base salary with a 5% to 15% commission structure tied to the client fees and a bonus structure tied to profit,” said Paulo. “A streamer, studio or network publicist is paid a base salary and other benefits.”

Bigger companies generally pay a lot more, but they also are more likely to work their employees really hard and churn them in and out like a machine, said Magdael.

So it depends on what your goals are. It might make sense for you to work 24/7 at a certain point, and it might give you invaluable experience that can put you in a good position for the rest of your career. Or it might not be right for you.

Coming from the film festival world, Magdael understands that many projects don’t have a lot of money but need help. As the head of an independent company, he has the flexibility to support certain projects even if there is less financial gain.

How is this career different than it was 10 or 25 years ago?

“When I started this career, there were about 50 media outlets that mattered for driving box office sales, and most of them were printed,” Paulo said. “Now, there are hundreds and a majority of them are online only. Today, TikTok and YouTube sometimes have more influence than traditional media on whether or not audiences see a film or tune in to a TV show.“

“Everything is so niche, so you have people who cover specific issues so you need to target them,” said Magdael, “as well as the folks that cover arts and entertainment more broadly.”

Before, there was also a lot more time to plan, he said. It would be more common to pitch a feature for a magazine six months before a movie came out. Now, everything is “breaking news.”

“Everyone is trying to stay ahead of the game, but the game keeps getting faster and faster,” he said.

The subject matter has changed along with the pace. It used to be more controversial when celebrities weighed in on political or social issues. There was more of a divide between the role of an entertainer and the role of a thought leader or activist.

But now, your platform as a celebrity — if you’re lucky enough to become successful in Hollywood — is seen as an asset and a responsibility to take seriously, said Tucker. Younger fans want to know what you stand for.

“You can’t just be on a red carpet talking about yourself anymore,” she said. “Brands are attaching themselves to talent with something to say. … Even networks, they want people who care about our global community, that have a voice, someone who cares.”

A lot of her work is not just about promoting her clients’ films or TV shows, but also connecting them with the right organizations so they can use their fame to highlight social causes that are important — and personal — to them.

What advice do pros always hear that is wrong?

“I hear this all the time: that you’re a publicist, not a babysitter,” said Tucker. “Don’t handhold too much, you can spoil talent.”

It’s less that she thinks this is wrong and more that she thinks different clients have different needs — and different publicists have different styles.

“I just believe in taking care of people,” she said. “There’s a bit of Southern hospitality in how I handle my accounts. … They might need affirmation, they might need education. It can be a very scary time, because they put themselves out there to be vulnerable, to be judged. They need support.”

Hollywood publicists can be very demanding. They often sit in on their clients’ interviews. They want to know exactly what’s happening before it’s happening. They can stop journalists from asking certain questions. But there’s a way to be decisive and stern while still being respectful and kind, Tucker said.

It can come across as gatekeeping, but to her, it’s about protecting her clients’ voice and vision. It’s also about protecting them from salacious headlines based on quotes taken out of context or details about their personal life they’re not comfortable making public. It’s about knowing what your clients can handle and what they can’t.

“When those Twitter alerts start coming through — ‘So and so said this!’ ‘And so and so said this!’ — that can be very triggering,” she said.

There’s also a stereotype of a Hollywood publicist as someone who crafts fake, media-friendly images for difficult celebrities. But while this might have happened in the past, Paulo said, it’s hard for celebrities to get away with it anymore. Contemporary audiences are savvy and will eventually see through most pretenses.

Of course, everyone has difficult clients, But this shouldn’t be the norm at your job, Paulo said.

“I promise you, there are better people to work with,” she said. “In my experience, most people are just doing the best job they can with what they have.”

What’s some good advice?

Be proactive: “No job in entertainment is going to be handed to you, and you can’t succeed in this industry by being passive,” said Paulo.

Tucker remembers one of her proudest moments early in her career, when she successfully pitched Jay Ellis as a story for the New York Times when he was a guest star on “Masters of Sex.” “Showtime was like, ‘You know, he’s just a guest star.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, so?’” she said, laughing. “I didn’t care, but it was like, ‘The audacity!’”

She was an assistant, it was a holiday weekend and everyone had left, so she did everything herself. And it worked. “I was really proud to get that moment,” she said. “It gave me the confidence to really keep going. That’s what was pushing me to be better and go harder.”

The stars are not your friends: Magdael said it’s important to remember that, unless you’ve had a relationship with someone for a long time, the stars are not your friends. It’s tempting and fun to go out and party with your clients after a big awards show or film festival premiere, but you’re there to do a job.

You aren’t the star: “Anyone who is interested in becoming a publicist should understand this is a behind-the-scenes career where you cheer and support other people’s accomplishments and collaborate with journalists to help provide a narrative about those accomplishments,” said Paulo.

“Your name will not be in the byline. Your name will not be on the end credits — unless you’re the unit publicist or listed in the ‘Thank You’ section.”

But even if you don’t get any of the attention of accolades, “you’ll have a lot of great cocktail stories,” she said.