Julia Allison, columnist for Time Out New York, recently launched NonSociety, a Webcast spotlighting her life and those of two close friends. Earlier this year, Allison was featured on the cover of Wired. She is also planning to star in a reality show about NonSociety later this year. Allison talks to PRWeek about the tricky business of being a Web celebrity in the age of personality journalism.
PRWeek: Your Wired Magazine cover generated a lot of controversy. What are your thoughts on being the poster child for Internet celebrity?
Julia Allison: It was a great to be a part of that. But the only thing was, my true goal for me was never fame. I wanted two things: for editors to publish my work and for people to read my work. And I think the piece may have [made it look] like I wanted to be famous just because I like attention. But I wanted to be like Nora Ephron - to be looked at creatively by an audience and [have] relative financial freedom. I saw one sure method to that end – making myself into a marquee name. Unfortunately – or fortunately – my personality is conducive for publicity…The article was ultimately a how-to, so I understand why they did that, but I'm a writer and never pretended to be an actor, singer, or like I had money.
PRWeek: Your image has garnered a lot of attention. Do you have PR help?
Allison: I've never had PR help. But recently me, [and my NonSociety co-founders] for the first time, we visited some PR firms. And I know I've probably made every PR mistake in the book. A lot of things that PR reps probably would have told me not to do, I've done. So I'm not saying that I'd necessarily advise people to take my route because it's had incredible personal consequences. But I am saying [that] there are other routes [to Internet celebrity]. For instance, one PR company that I met with advised me not to give any more interviews after the Wired piece came out. They said, ‘Your reputation is atrocious and the only way to redeem is to stop talking to the press.' That just didn't ring true to me. I thought, ‘Yes, I'd made some mistakes, and talking to Gawker at certain points has been not smart.' But ultimately, I think that saying yes to things is smarter than saying no to things. But it depends on what you want to achieve obviously.
PRWeek: In this age of media convergence, where do you think you fit in?
Allison: I think there are different kinds of journalists. I call my journalism personality-based journalism. I'm a writer and have had a column for the last six years. Is it war journalism? Of course not. Is it journalism like Sarah Lacy does? No. But I'm not trying to compete with them. I've always been hesitant to call myself a journalist because I didn't want people to think that I thought I was in the same role as them. I'm doing something very different. There is some quality of performance art, an Oprah-esque quality...I don't want people to think that I think I'm Woodward and Bernstein. I compare myself to Nora Ephron; she wrote a memoir about her divorce. How is that so different than what I'm doing? She just didn't have an electronic medium.
PRWeek: Do you think in the age of Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, reporters have to get used to their personalities being a part of the story?
Allison: It's a great question that is going to come up again and again. We are just at the beginning of trying to figure this out. Do I think it's necessary to imbue your writing with personality? I don't think it is necessary. I really believe in journalism that is third-person and I really believe in journalism that is first-person. There are some people who are really uncomfortable inserting their personality into their journalism. That's OK. And there are some people who are really uncomfortable not putting their personality into journalism. I'm one of those people. Some could argue it's really narcissistic but it's not. When guys like Hunter S. Thompson started to do it, it was gonzo journalism. A dating columnist is seen as a joke, but a sports columnist is seen as a real journalist. Excuse me – explain to me the difference again. And in terms of marketing and PR – personality is the way to go. It sells stuff. That's why companies pay celebrities so much money to sell things. Personalities sell things.
PRWeek: Can you go too far with this by revealing too much?
Allison: This is one of the things I learned from my [joint relationship blog with then boyfriend Jakob Lodwick]. It was a very conscious journalistic experiment. I wanted to explore male and female communications in real time. It put me through personal hell but the response I got was [that] it helped a lot of people. With celebrities, you just see the smiling photos and then the breakup. So anyone going through relationship issues finds themselves alone. As a journalist, I wanted to explore those issues. And the responses I got were, ‘Thanks – this made me feel less alone.' But the problem was it broke down the fourth wall and the audience now felt like they were part of the play, because they saw some scenes they thought they knew everything.
PRWeek: What are the differences between the PR people you work with in San Francisco and New York?
Allison: There are two major problems in PR right now that I see. In the Wired piece, they say that Julia Allison always considers herself to be the object of a profile. I think if PR reps did that more often they'd get much better placement. I tell [a lot of PR pros] I'd love to mention your product but please give me an angle. But in San Francisco specifically, the No. 1 problem is a lack of showman-like personalities at the companies. This is the easiest problem to solve. San Francisco is filled with amazing products and amazing companies – but they need the sales guy. That's why people like Kevin Rose are so successful there because he's one of the few people who are really media friendly. I was the face for Star magazine for awhile. I probably wasn't the best face for them but the idea was good. People sell products. [CEO] Steve Jobs in invaluable to the Apple brand, but people forget that.
PRWeek: After being the target of so many posts on Web sites like Gawker, what have you learned about bad press?
Allison: The best way to handle bad press is to overwhelm it with other press. If you try to refute, and think that's an effective way for that to go away, it's not. All it will do is increase that particular angle in your Google search. The only way to deal with is to keep on going and take in other press for good things. I wouldn't have the Wired cover if it wasn't for Gawker, but Gawker has also closed a lot of doors for me. But if someone wants to be a well-known writer, I can't say that I'd recommend that strategy. For a PR rep to recommend that strategy, it would have to be a very specific situation.
Name: Julia Allison
Title: Columnist, Webcaster, blogger
Outlet: Time Out New York, NonSociety
Preferred Contact Method: firstname.lastname@example.org
Web site: www.nonsociety.com