Placing celebrities in the media is one of the toughest and easiest
jobs in PR. One the one hand, everyone from The New York Times to The
National Enquirer wants your help; on the other, everyone wants
something new and original.
General-interest media outlets across the country have done everything
they can to work celebrities into their coverage, blurring the lines
between traditional media and the so-called "down-market" press.
"Since...1995, we've been arm wrestling with magazines like People,
Vanity Fair, Newsweek, and others for the same exclusive material," says
Tony Frost, editor of the Star tabloid.
A recent week found Julia Roberts not only on the cover of People and
Us, but also Time magazine, which ran a piece called "America's Best
Entertainers." Sharing newsstands was a Newsweek special edition: Issues
The cover? Movie stars Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2.
In recent years, celebrity journalism has altered. "The thing that's
changed the most is how competitive it's become," notes Lewis Kay,
director of the entertainment division at Bragman Nyman Cafarelli (BNC).
"Everybody wants access, and everybody needs something original."
In some cases, a celebrity journalist doesn't even need an interview in
order to profile a star. "They have been more aggressive in writing
about them whether or not they get cooperation," says leading Hollywood
publicist Pat Kingsley, partner at PMK/HBH. "They do a lot of paste-up
pieces on people if the celebrity declines the interview. It's not that
they quote you, they just pick up other quotes that you've given in
other interviews and make a piece out of it."
While this unsolicited, often positive media coverage would be manna
from heaven in other PR fields, Kingsley says, "We don't like it because
if a magazine calls you and says, 'We'd like to do an interview with
your client,' you may have just done an interview with a competing
magazine for a particular cover. So the second magazine has the idea to
beat the first magazine, and they'll slap together a story that you
haven't cooperated on. That can kill the cover story for the magazine
you have cooperated with."
Of course, only a handful of celebrities are subject to that intense
competition. For most other celebrities and their publicists, it's a
strange and often fickle courtship with the press, as the stars,
editors, and producers continually looking to trade up or down, with the
stars look for the most prestigious cover and the journalists looking
for the most prestigious stars. "For every Julia Roberts there are 50
actresses fighting for the other 25 magazine covers," says BNC's
Occasionally, this can lead to hard feelings, but no one, especially
celebrity journalists, can afford to stay angry for long. "One of my
clients, Rebecca Romjin-Stamos, did a cover story for Glamour, and
another magazine, which shall remain nameless, was upset about it," Kay
says. "But when another of her movies was coming up they called and said
let's work together on this one."
Hollywood's editorial heavyweights
Publicists privately admit that there is a pecking order among
celebrity-centric media outlets, with magazines such as Vanity Fair,
Talk, Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, Vogue, GQ, and Esquire, and TV
interviewers such as Barbara Walters and Today's Matt Lauer at the top
of the heap.
The field is also distinctive in that the editors often overshadow
individual journalists. Some publicists may insist on an interview by
Vanity Fair's Leslie Bennetts or pass information to syndicated
columnists such as Liz Smith or the New York Daily News column Rush &
Malloy. But in the end, it is editors such as Talk's Tina Brown, Terry
McDonell of Us, Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter, and Martha Nelson of
InStyle that ultimately determine not just where a story is placed, but
also its content and tone.
"One of the worst situations I've been involved in was with a writer who
did a piece on a client and an editor added a sentence just to spice it
up," says Kay. "So it's the editors you need to know as much, if not
more than the writers."
The mainstream media's current aggressive embrace of celebrity
journalism is viewed with a certain amount of irony by long-standing
celebrity-centered outlets like The National Enquirer and Star. But
while the subject matter may overlap, Frost says there's a huge
philosophical difference between the mainstream press and the so-called
"Publications like the Enquirer and Star have massive reach, but we
don't wait to be told we can have access to a celebrity," he says. "Most
of the time, the mainstream media only gets access to a celebrity when
the subject has a movie, TV show, or autobiography coming out. And then
they do the rounds and it's all one-dimensional stuff. We're out there
breaking stories on our own agenda."
But Kingsley says it's a bit of a myth that top publicists and
celebrities have an iron grip on the entire celebrity journalism
process, dictating everything from photos to what can and can't be
asked. "We don't tell them that they can't ask something," she says.
"What we do tell them is if it's a subject that is sensitive to the
actor, you can ask the question, but if your story is dependent on it,
the client is not going to get into it. So if you know that going in,
you won't be surprised."
Star PR power
And while there are different levels of stardom which can impact media
interest, a celebrity hook will often attract more interest for a PR
pitch. Porter Novelli SVP Audrey Adlam says client Princess Cruise Lines
regularly uses, while not white-hot, still well-known celebrities to
lure media to themed ship launches. "One of the criteria is that the
celebrity not only be organic to the project that we're working on...but
they also have nostalgic, kitsch, or current appeal," she says. "Fabio
is a very good example. What's better than having the King of Romance
for the romance-themed launch of the Ocean Princess?"
The cruise company also used a 30th anniversary reunion of Love Story
stars Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw for the same launch, generating
coverage in USA Today and the Associated Press, as well as on Good
Morning America, Oprah, and Entertainment Tonight. Christine Cea, Porter
Novelli's director of the Princess Cruise account, adds that it's not
just celebrity writers who are interested in access to the stars. It
appears as though a famous name is a draw for writers of all hues.
WHERE TO GO
Magazines: Vanity Fair; Talk; Premiere; Maxim; Details; Interview; Time;
Newsweek; Entertainment Weekly; People; Us; Star; The National Enquirer;
Rolling Stone; Spin; Vogue; Cosmopolitan
Trade publications: Hollywood Reporter; Variety; Billboard
Television: Good Morning America; Today; Oprah; Larry King Live; 20/20;
Entertainment Tonight; Access Hollywood; The Rosie O'Donnell Show; The
Tonight Show; The Late Show with David Letterman; E!; VH1; MTV