PR TECHNIQUE: Shielding your client from overexposure

Movie stars and other notables want more than their 15 minutes of fame. But as Matthew Arnold finds out, there can be such a thing as too much publicity.

Movie stars and other notables want more than their 15 minutes of fame. But as Matthew Arnold finds out, there can be such a thing as too much publicity.

Celebrity can be a cruel master, given our Dionysian tradition of tearing down public figures - entertainers, politicians, and businesspeople - as rapturously as we build them up. The cult of personality easily turns on its potentates. A careful balancing act is required to keep key constituencies, the media, and the masses in the sway of a client - for the long haul. Stars who burn too brightly may soon burn out altogether. Feed the press too much, too fast, and they might take your hand with it. Worse still, they might shun your offerings in favor of fresher, more exotic fare. "There is the expression that so-and-so would go to the opening of an envelope," says Richard Johnson of the New York Post's Page Six gossip column. "Reporters lose interest if people are out too much. A boredom factor sets in." Howard Rubenstein, a New York-based PR potentate himself, agrees. "Good PR ought to have peaks and valleys," says Rubenstein, who has counseled a host of celebrities, including Michael Jackson and boxing promoter Don King. "After you get some large exposure, it may be time to lay off a bit. Today's media will build you up to take you down." Just ask Jack Welch, who's been under fire for accepting a golden handshake nearly as big as the revenues he brought in during his years at the helm of General Electric. Media-savvy Welch was careful to limit his appearances as GE chief, restricting major speeches to four or five per year, and pairing them with significant strategic moves to position the company - and himself - as a hard-charging dynamo. His celebrity eclipsed any effort at scripting, however, as Welch's gunslinger style and unparalleled record propelled him onto the covers of business magazines and made him a media darling. So he was blindsided last month when a messy divorce turned mean, with wife Jane's lawyers revealing the generous terms of his retirement. Investors cried foul. "I've learned the hard way that perception matters more than ever in this environment," Welch wrote in The Wall Street Journal, as he agreed to forfeit many of the perks he enjoyed. Publicists agree that Welch's high visibility, due to a busy book-promotion schedule coupled with his iconic stature as one of the highest-flying CEOs of the '90s, contributed to the media frenzy, which in turn sparked an SEC investigation. "He probably went over the edge with his book, and now it's coming back to haunt him," says Rubenstein. "It exposes you to more scrutiny. You get overexposed, and when you do something wrong, you get killed." But how do you know when your client should lay low for a while? There are signs, says Rubenstein. "Any PR person who doesn't get paid by the column inches will know - when everyone starts saying yes to the client, when the client starts to act like she is the great one, etc. - that they're overexposed." Standing up to celebrity egos can be tough, but it comes with the territory. "They don't like hearing that," says Mike Paul of New York-based MGP & Associates, which has counseled a host of major athletes, along with politicians including former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY) and Rev. Jesse Jackson. "Their egos are telling you, 'You know who I am, right?' But you have to tell them that they're not going to look good chasing every story. Position yourself in an area of expertise, and they'll be calling you." Hollywood publicists cite the seldom-seen Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer as masters of balance, while Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez are thought to spend too much time basking in the spotlight, attending every awards show or charity event. "Events can really get overused," says Susan Magrino, whose eponymous agency represents Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. "After a while, people get blase." Armando Azarloza, who has worked with former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and House appropriations committee chair Bob Livingstone (R-LA), cautions that communicators must make high-profile clients focus their message, lest it be muddied. Azarloza, an EVP at Weber Shandwick's LA office, says Gingrich, like his arch-nemesis Bill Clinton, had trouble delegating, and wanted to be out front on every issue. "The key is discipline," says Azarloza. "People in PR have to be strong enough to tell CEOs and elected officials that it's okay not to be in every story, as long as you are in those that advance your position." Azarloza adds that, to present stakeholders with a clear positioning, a client should be heard on no more than several issues at a time, with lieutenants handling others. In the long run, clarity and consistency win out over column inches. What's more, the higher and more unimpeachable the client's profile, the sweeter the scandal story to any would-be muckrakers. Martha Stewart's omnipresence and wholesome, perfectionist image has contributed to her troubles of late. At first glance, Stewart, who is accused of insider trading to the tune of $227,000, hardly seems to warrant association with corporate villainy like Kenneth Lay and Bernie Ebbers, who allegedly cooked the books, lied to investors, and trashed major companies. But her visibility in books, on TV, and through a range of branded wares, coupled with that persona, helped make her a poster girl for corporate malfeasance - guilty or not. "A downfall isn't interesting unless there's someplace to fall from," says Page Six's Johnson. "In a case like hers, where she's so famous and successful and knows how to do everything perfectly, when she finally makes a misstep, it's newsworthy." Promoting a balanced, humanized image of the client while curbing exposure can pay dividends in the long run, says University of Maryland communications professor Jim Grunig. "When you're constantly seeking publicity, the media look at you and say, 'There must be some dandruff under that halo.'" -------------- Technique tips: 1 Do place firm limits on a client's exposure. Cherry-pick interviews and appearances for maximum value 2 Do restrict the client's message in speaking appearances to certain issues of expertise. Let lieutenants handle the rest 3 Do focus on more specialized avenues if a client is overexposed, targeting niche outlets rather than mainstream press 1 Don't allow the client to appear at every seminar, trade, or society event on the calendar 2 Don't encourage interaction with the media when overexposed, unless there's news to be announced 3 Don't neglect to return press inquiries to limit exposure, so as not to burn bridges. Just go off the record

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