PROFILE: Picky PR of Victoria's Secret lends class to underwear

Last Thursday, Victoria's Secret took center stage on prime time

television. But VP of PR Monica Mitro explains that having half-naked

models isn't all it takes to get publicity ... though it doesn't hurt.

Claire Atkinson reports.



The Victoria's Secret design room in New York's fashion district is

filled with dressmakers, frantically sewing sequins to undergarments for

the annual company fashion show.



Next door is every man's fantasy: the Victoria's Secret catalogue come

to life. Stylists, make-up artists and, yes, half-naked models are

everywhere you look. In the midst of the maelstrom is Monica Mitro, vice

president of PR for the lingerie giant.



Some might say she has one of the easiest jobs in PR. Getting press for

Victoria's Secret (owned by The Limited) and working with supermodels

such as Gisele Bundchen, Heidi Klum, and Tyra Banks is a no-brainer,

right?



Wrong. Mitro, who works closely with The Limited's president and chief

marketing officer Ed Razek, is in charge of a controversial brand. To

those who say the company's impossible-to-ignore advertising borders on

soft porn (they're all women) Mitro says, "I've never heard that

before.



What is upsetting to some people is not to others, but people are

entitled to their own opinions." Mitro adds that while some stores in

the Bible Belt get letters of complaint, "We are selling lingerie, and

we have to be able to show it."



And show it they have. Last year, the Victoria's Secret fashion show was

held at the Cannes Film Festival, and the year before, the webcast

almost broke the entire internet in a global log jam.



This year, Mitro and Razek pulled off something bigger and better,

orchestrating a prime-time fashion show on ABC last Thursday (November

15). One can only imagine the PR headaches that accompany dealing with

supermodels in their underwear, but the greater concern was how

appropriate such a show would be in the aftermath of September 11. The

company was tempted to cancel, but was encouraged by Mayor Giuliani to

let the show go on.



Regardless, Mitro was ready for the unexpected: "We have a whole crisis

plan in place in case someone calls in a bomb threat,"she says. Overall,

however, Mitro says her biggest fear was whether the show would fly as a

TV event and be a ratings winner.



To generate buzz for the one-hour program, which features a catwalk show

and musical acts such as Andrea Bocelli, Mitro lined up appearances for

either herself or the models on The View and Good Morning America. As a

promotional bonus, the models were also scheduled to appear on game show

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.



Victoria's Secret began life humbly in the mid-'80s, with a roster of

unknown models and five stores in San Francisco. Now part of The Limited

group, which also owns retailers Bath & Body Works and Express,

Victoria's Secret has about 1,000 stores.



Mitro, who left Ohio State University with a degree in fine arts, began

with the company eight years ago. "I came in as a freelancer, and went

to 12 cities to promote the Miracle Bra by doing radio and TV spots. It

really took off."



Mitro spent most of her time in malls talking to ordinary women about

their bras. TV shows would book her for five-minute segments, and would

keep her talking for the entire half hour. She became the PR manager in

1994.



Mitro, who jokes that she never wore a bra until she was 26, says

everyone wants to talk about underwear with her. "When I tell taxi

drivers what I do, they think it's an open invite to ask me

anything."



One of Mitro's PR tactics is to only do seasonal media pushes. The focus

is mainly around Valentine's Day and Christmas. "We are not in the

public eye too much," says Mitro, who has in fact cancelled a handful of

promotional parties to use her marketing dollars more effectively

elsewhere. And though she won't say how much the company spends on PR,

the ABC fashion show alone cost $5 million to produce.



The company has been inundated by requests from stores to do cross

promotions and by people who want to place Victoria's Secret products in

TV shows.



But Mitro has to think very carefully before agreeing in order to retain

control over how the lingerie is positioned. The company was not at all

amused by the sitcom Veronica's Closet (starring Kirstie Alley), yet it

has agreed to help out shows such as Dharma & Greg, Spin City, Will &

Grace, and Sex and the City.



In addition to extensive media relations outreach (Mitro appeared in the

November Vogue and gave an interview to Allure about caring for your

bra), Mitro's job extends far beyond traditional pitching and

placing.



She helps choose intelligent models with "inner confidence" for TV

appearances, and she doesn't want them asked inappropriate questions or

positioned in the wrong segment. Such is the competition among the early

evening entertainment shows that Mitro is often able to conduct

off-camera interviews and then parcel out the footage to each show. "We

always try to finesse a story by asking what else is on, so we're able

to pick and choose," she says.



The road hasn't been without bumps, but according to colleague Razek,

Mitro's skill is to turn bad news into good. When stations refused to

run a Victoria's Secret ad featuring Claudia Schiffer a few years ago,

"she found a way to turn it into a story. ET had it as an exclusive,"

says Razek, "and when we cut back on circulation of the direct-mail

catalogue by 20 million, she was able to turn it into a positive story

by going on air and saying it would still be available to those who want

it. We had guys calling in."



So what's next for Mitro, who despite being a hard worker finds time to

play her cello and work in her garden? "Next year, we have new products.

But the TV special has been a great project," she says, adding that it

would be nice to make it an annual holiday event.



MONICA MITRO

1986: Graduates from Ohio State University with a bachelor's degree

in fine arts

1986-1994: Freelances, organizing arts funding events and then modeling

1994-1995: Hired as PR manager at Victoria's Secret

1995-1997: Promoted to PR director, Victoria's Secret

1999-present: Vice president of PR, Victoria's Secret



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