PROFILE: Jacobs' skills lead her to PR, whatever that is

Susan Jacobs may have fallen into PR by accident, but that hasn't stopped her from working on everything from indie flicks to classical music. She even made pinball mainstream again.

Susan Jacobs may have fallen into PR by accident, but that hasn't stopped her from working on everything from indie flicks to classical music. She even made pinball mainstream again.

Susan Jacobs never wanted to be in PR. In fact, she barely knew what PR was until she was getting paid to do it. Though her fifth-grade application to New York's United Nations International School (UNIS) listed her career aspirations as veterinarian and ice skater, she soon realized she didn't want to work with helpless animals, and that her roller-disco skills would not take her to the Winter Olympics. Now Jacobs works on the 41st floor of a Times Square skyscraper with an office overlooking the Hudson. The free-spirited daughter of East Village artists is VP of worldwide publicity for the RCA/Victor group, a unit of the BMG recording-label conglomerate. "I don't think anyone grows up wanting to be a publicist," Jacobs says. "You fall into it. It's a personality type - a combination of mother, therapist, camp counselor, and strategist." After graduating from UNIS (Jacobs says of her admission, "I think they had to fill a quota of American students"), she didn't even want to go to college, but when her parents insisted, she chose liberal, unstructured Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts. Without a formal major program, students design their own concentration and course of study. Jacobs says she didn't study much at all, had a lot of fun, and transferred to NYU's Gallatin School after two years and one semester of credit. She spent four years at NYU studying film and the arts while working part-time stage-managing small plays on 42nd Street and doing various administrative jobs. She took a crash course in word processing, and was soon typing evacuation plans for a large oil company for $25 an hour. "In 1984, that felt like a million bucks," she says. Though it may seem like a blip on the radar of her many career turns, her job at Mobil Oil gave Jacobs her big break in publicity. All she really wanted to do was work in the film industry, but she didn't know how to get her foot in the door. Her understanding boss had a connection in the finance department of Columbia Pictures, and helped her land an interview. Realizing that finance really wasn't Jacobs' bag, the finance VP helped her land a job as assistant to the director of publicity for Triumph Films, Columbia's foreign-film division. "I still had no idea what publicity was," Jacobs admits. In her first PR position, Jacobs quickly learned about publicity on the job. After working with Marcy Bloom at Triumph, she was a founding staff member of Clein & Feldman, a busy and successful boutique film PR agency. Her first projects were Academy Awards campaigns for films such as Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Trip to Bountiful, and Mona Lisa. She was given her own phone line and served as press spokesperson for the films. While at Triumph, she also worked on independent films such as Down by Law, Dirty Dancing, and Spike Lee's first film, She's Gotta Have It. Having proven her ability, Jacobs landed the position as director of publicity for Film Forum, an independent theater in Manhattan. "It was a natural fit," she says. "I could be creative, talk to people all day, and see free movies." In 1991, a conversation with client Sharon Kahn turned into a business meeting, and the two decided to open their own agency. Kahn & Jacobs handled independent films, and branched quickly into television, corporate, events, and classical music PR when they took on a client who wrote scores for independent and foreign films. One of her most memorable and successful campaigns was publicity for the International Pinball Championships, held in New York, for which Jacobs says they achieved one billion media impressions. "We thought like reporters and found every possible angle for the story, and people just ate it up. We got international press for this event." For one publication, they pitched it as a sports story; for another, an historical reference (Mayor LaGuardia had banned pinball, citing it as gambling because a player can win a free game). Jacobs, herself an avid pinball player ("It's very zen"), could tell that The New York Times' Lifestyle editor was a closet pinball player, and got the section's entire front page devoted to the competition. "Then I sold out and went corporate," Jacobs says of the closure of Kahn & Jacobs after eight years. "The work was great, but the hardest part was running the business. You actually think about how many paper clips you use, and you have make sure you meet payroll every week." She spent a year as VP of worldwide publicity for Sony Classical, doing CD releases and tour support for Yo Yo Ma, Charlotte Church, and soundtracks for films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. "After 20 years of doing entertainment PR, I needed a short break," says Jacobs, who left Sony and became a shiatsu therapist and certified Pilates instructor. "I wanted to do something cause-related, but nonprofits wouldn't know what to do with a resume that's got film and music things on it," she says. Now, at RCA/Victor since May, Jacobs works with acts such as Etta James (who will be honored at the Grammy Awards), Ziggy Marley, and the Chieftans. Her rise to the 41st floor is a testament to her ability to spot and seize opportunities. "Susan is an incredibly fast thinker," says Chris Roslan, a VP at Dera & Associates, who works with RCA/Victor promoting the Chieftans. "She realizes the value of creative ideas, takes chances, and is especially skilled at negotiating the slow corporate environment in order to make things happen quickly." Despite the notion of "selling out," Jacobs enjoys her job. "The problem with PR," she says, "is that you get sucked into it. You don't have the chance to look around." But Jacobs did look around, and came back anyway. ----- Susan Jacobs 2002-present VP, worldwide publicity, RCA/Victor 2001-May 2002 Shiatsu massage therapist, Pilates instructor 1999-2001 VP, worldwide publicity, Sony Classical 1993-1999 Partner, Kahn & Jacobs 1990-1993 Director of publicity, Film Forum 1984-1990 SAE, Clein & Feldman 1984 Publicity assistant, Triumph Films

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