Among Hollywood’s most sought-after publicists, Howard Bragman, 53, has a celebrity clientele that includes Stevie Wonder, Ricki Lake, Mischa Barton and Ed McMahon. In 1989, he founded Bragman Nyman Cafarelli Public Relations and Marketing (BNC), which became one of the premier PR firms in the country before it was sold in 2001. In 2005, he founded Fifteen Minutes, his own boutique agency, where he specializes in entertainment, crisis management and the gay/lesbian market.
He talks about the Facebook and Twitter craze, how even Mother Teresa could have used a publicist, and what Israel should do to buffer its image.
Jewish Journal: Your new book, ‘Where’s My Fifteen Minutes?’ makes the point that anyone can become famous. Is this a good thing?
Howard Bragman: Well, the reality is that even 10 years ago, public figures were actors, politicians, athletes and other ‘celebrities.’ With Facebook and Google and iPhones and the world we live in today, we all have a public image, and that’s my main premise here.
JJ: You’ve said that if a person doesn’t take the opportunity to define their own image, somebody else will do it for them and they probably won’t like the results. So as a publicist, is it your job to control that process?
HB: A publicist no longer has the luxury of control; what a publicist can do is manage. If you do something stupid in public, somebody’s going to capture it on their phone and it’s going to get out there.
JJ: How do you manage reputations in the viral age of Facebook and Twitter?
HB: People’s careers can fall apart so quickly now. They can get into trouble in a matter of minutes. Look at Mel Gibson when he had his reported anti-Semitic moment.
JJ: How would you have handled that?
HB: Sometimes somebody has something that’s so bad you can’t fix it. What you can always do is help the client understand what they’re going through, help ease the pain.
JJ: Could a publicist have helped Bernie Madoff?
HB: No, I think he was terminal. I think his shonda was so great that there was no hope for him. I think that’s between him and his lord, and he better pray that wherever we go from here, there’s a place of great forgiveness.
JJ: This month, there’s a story in Vanity Fair about New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. In his case, he refused to speak with the investigating journalist and the story wound up being very unflattering to him. Isn’t it better for image branding to establish camaraderie with a journalist?
HB: What I help celebrities understand is that stories are going to have nuance to them; except for your bar mitzvah and your wedding day, nothing is all roses and chocolate cake. It’s not in any journalist’s best interest to write a totally positive story and present a bouquet of flowers. Nobody’s that wonderful. I’m sure even Mother Teresa had a pimple once.
JJ: She befriended a Haitian dictator. And had questionable donors.
HB: Everybody makes a decision. I don’t think Dick Cheney cares what the press says. He’s transcended it. There are some people who relish the negative, like Ann Coulter. She’s a hater, and she thinks it sells books.
JJ: Your book is all about Hollywood. Does it have any relevance for someone living in an area that’s less metropolitan, like your hometown of Flint, Mich.?
HB: I have lots of examples for people who might be a lawyer, or a community activist, or own a small business. You still need to get your message out. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the Flint Journal or you do it on Twitter.
JJ: Aren’t these new technologies just leading to over-saturation?
HB: The biggest audience you can get in this country right now is, say, the Super Bowl. And the Super Bowl had 100 million people. Well, guess what? There are 300 million people in this country, so you’ve only hit a third if you’ve spent the millions of dollars it takes for a Super Bowl ad. So people are very aggressive about using every vehicle they can to get their message out there.
JJ: In such a huge market, how do you stand out?
HB: You have to stand for something. It’s fine if you want to do Facebook and Twitter, but don’t bore me! Say something interesting. Say something provocative. I have a friend — and she’s a lovely lady; she’s a lady-who-lunches: she goes to Pilates, she goes to The Ivy and she gets facials. What in the hell is she Twittering about? What do you have to tell me? You found a good facialist?
JJ: Best new hand lotion at the Four Seasons spa?
HB: Exactly. I think we’re going to get over being enamored with this toy soon. If you like to write and express yourself, go take a writing class. Get a voice before you start shouting.
JJ: Lots of people think Israel needs a PR makeover. As someone deeply involved in Jewish causes, what would you do to establish a more equitable image of Israel?
HB: About 99 percent of all coverage that comes out of Israel is about terrorism and war. What I really think Israel needs to do is hire a number of PR firms in the United States and in other parts of the world — one that would focus only on medicine, one that would focus only on science, another that would focus only on arts — and they would show the best of Israel. Israel has good stories to tell — why aren’t they telling them? Why aren’t they hiring me to help with the arts? Israel, hello?
JJ: How did your background prepare you to do what you’re doing?
HB: As I tell people, I grew up fat, Jewish and gay in Flint, Mich. It made me a very empathetic guy.