Entertainment public relations remains a fascinating and popular topic among college students studying strategic communications. On Wednesday, January 21, Rock and Hall of Fame and Museum Communications Coordinator Carl Harp and Kent State University Professor Gene Shelton, former publicist to musicians such as Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, addressed some of PRSSA Kent's questions regarding their careers and the entertainment PR industry.
Q: Why the entertainment industry?
Harp: I got addicted to the access. I started traveling with bands when I was 17 and had a lot of fun talking to artists like they’re people. I like to travel, too. I started my own business for a while streaming live concerts. Then, a part time job opened up at CBS Radio. I slowly worked my way up. I was covering a lot of stuff at the Rock Hall. They ended up knowing me there.
Shelton: It wasn’t planned. I came to Kent State to major in journalism. I wanted to be a reporter. It was not my goal to work in the record business; it was to get a job at a newspaper as a pop music critic... The publisher of the magazine I worked for recommended me to Motown records. The key to my success was that I was a writer. I wrote my way into the record industry doing press releases, bios… It was something that the more I got into [it], one job led to another.
Q: What are some pros and cons of the industry?
Harp: You’re trying to make people happy all the time, and it’s a delicate balance to juggle. Sometimes, you have to let people down easy, and I don’t like that. I like to make people happy.
Shelton: I don’t want to talk about the cons. The biggest lesson that I learned was the first day on the job at Motown Records. Bob Jones who hired me said, “Your job is to work for these artists. You are here to represent them to the public. You are not here to be their best friends. They will want you to be. They live a lavish lifestyle, but you cannot. Understand that you work for Motown Records. How they behave... You have to correct their behavior and, if you can’t, cover it up.” It was never work. I never looked at it as work.
Q: Do you have any advice for people interested in the industry?
Harp: Adaptability. Be able to troubleshoot a lot. You have to be able to adapt. You have to be able to think on your feet. You have to have fun, energy, passion. You have to know your band inside and out. I often have to prepare spokespeople for an interview. So, I have to know that information inside and out. Just when you think you’re 100% done, add another 1%. Add that something extra.
Shelton: Know how to tell a story. It’s all about storytelling and all about communicating. You need to understand the story you're telling. Know what you are talking about. Know your artists or your client. There is nothing worse than when someone asks you a question about your client you don’t know the answer to or if you give the wrong answer. Know your facts. Know the story. Know how to pitch a story for a client in a way [so] that an editor or reporter can see your story. It’s not just about the music. It’s not just about the film. What is it about this person that the reader or viewer can relate to?
Q: How has the evolution of the music industry impacted your careers?
Harp: You've got to evolve with it. Evolve with how people consume information because even that changes weekly, monthly, yearly. This year there’s a fan vote for who gets inducted [into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame]. We've seen a lot of our traffic is on mobile and tablets. So, why not make the ballot that way? [It's about] understanding the websites that [people are] viewing before they even come to your website and understanding your demographic. [It's understanding] people who are consuming your stuff, and how you can present it to them.
Shelton: You have to stay on top of the changes. You have a great advantage. You are doing something as PR practitioners I did not do. You have social media. It is the most important tool to reach your audience because that’s where your generation is. There’s instant connection with what you’re doing today. Maintain your credibility with your media sources. Don’t call with obnoxious requests. Once you've lost that credibility, once they stop taking your phone calls, you’re done. You don’t want that to happen. That’s why you have to stay on top of everything. Respect social media.
Q: Do you have any tips for how people who want to move into the music or entertainment industry can get a "foot in the door?"
Harp: It all starts with who you know. My career started with someone I knew from [Kent State]. It’s making those connections and leaving a good taste in people’s mouths. You never want to burn bridges. Because you never know who could help you out in the future.
Shelton: The key word is "respecting." You have to know what you want to do. You have to find a way to get in the door. But once you are in the door, once you are in the house, it is up to you to show a gold standard of excellence in everything you do. Whether it is writing, speaking or presenting yourself in public. Because you are constantly around people who are on the A-list.
Q: Was what you learned inside or outside of the classroom more valuable?
Harp: Going to class and having structure definitely helps. I took a lot of design classes and that helped. I learned a lot on the street, and I learn a lot of every day. I learn a lot from the people around me. I take a lot of webinars still--anytime I’m offered something through one of our monitoring services.
Shelton: If not for Kent State University and this school, I would not have had the career I had. I was taught in a classroom how to tell a story and how to be more assertive in the questions I want answered. I almost adapted a new personality. Because I’m a nerd and shy. And being a nerd and shyness won’t get you anywhere. The professors here will prepare you so that when you leave this school, whatever agency or corporation you walk into, whether you’re writing press releases or social media, you will be prepared. Now, nothing can compare to on-the-job, day-to-day experience. You have an advantage. The fact that your concentration and focus was in PR puts you ahead. Start preparing now for your success after you leave here. You can do it.
Q: What do you do to keep in contact with your networks?
Harp: I use social media a lot and email. And, sometimes, picking up the phone, too. It’s nice to hear people’s voices, sometimes.
Shelton: If [people I know] are in town I go see them, or they’ll call and tell me they’re here. I was in LA recently, and I saw artists that I have worked with and it was just like old times. It comes back to building solid relationships. If you build solid relationships, you will always be a part of their lives.
Q: What is the most challenging thing about working with talent?
Shelton: Their egos. They are surrounded by people who say "yes" to them all the time. You have to be the voice of reason that says "no." “No, you are twelve years old. You cannot have vodka and cranberry juice. Or smoke that.” Whether they’re children or adults, they’re given this entitlement to have whatever they want whenever they want. So, you have to deal with that and be strong enough not to be one of those "yes" people. I have a job to do. It is my job to make sure you get to that interview on time and speak with clarity and stay on track with those bullet points I talked to you about. People get lost in becoming fans instead of practitioners or managers. Always excel. Always take it as high as you can, regardless of how challenging being in the company of artists [can be]. They’re not bad people. You don’t spend 30 years working with people you don’t like.