I get off the Metro North railroad in New York winter weather, and I have to shlep a very heavy bag quickly up a long flight of stairs full of people in order to meet my ride, while carrying two other smaller bags on my shoulder. I take a breath and swing it up. I’m strong. But my shoulder hurts. Halfway up the stairs, my bag gets lighter. I look behind, and a man walking directly below me has gently and wordlessly lifted the bottom of my bag, and carries it with me to the top of the stairs. “Thank you!” I say, but like an angel in a Hallmark TV movie, he’s gone. To him, it’s kind of a nothing move with a minimal amount of energy expended, but to me it was a miracle and, well, a metaphor.
It can be a tough road to hoe as a solo act, whether you’re an artist, solo performer, comedian, storyteller, etc. The One Man Band act gets old and tired and sometimes you just wish someone else would come along and help lighten the load. Anyone. That’s the mistake. Coming from a place of desperation. But no matter what position we’re in, every person we work with needs to be aligned with our project, on all the levels.
I learned the hard way. Two frickin’ times. With. The Same. Person.
I worked with a PR person a few years ago, and their incompetence and drama caused me a massive amount of stress. I’m not going to give away any identifying details. I really want to. In fact, I want to sort of passive-aggressively hint at who they are, but I won’t. You don’t know them anyway.
But so before my show premiered, they engaged in a power struggle with my producer and my director so intensely that they both threatened to quit, which would have to toppled a big run of my standup show. I said I’d never work with them again, but the pull was too tantalizing.
I recently shot a pitch for a comedy special, and I needed someone to start sending it out. And I had a big, PR project for a show in New York that needed to start yesterday. I thought I could stand up for myself better this time. I believed no one else was out there, ready to help with a PR campaign I had coming up, and I was woo’d by the cheap hourly “friend rate” they were charging. (Also, my friend read some tarot for me and said I should go for it, even if it was hard before. Always give your power away to a tarot deck.) Turns out I was wrong.
Here are 8 things you shouldn’t stand for in a public relations relationship. This goes for agents, managers, bookers, and personal assistants, too. Oh, and boyfriends. These are red flags I knew about and ignored:
- They don’t distill all their thoughts into clear, concise communications. Do they share so much detail that it’s difficult to sort through and stay present for the important points? This person I worked with happened to be a New Yorker with a sort of an addiction to excess words. I like when people use bullet points instead of prose.
- They share excess logistical or personal information. I don’t need to know the exact number of hours and the exact times they’re starting and ending their work in a play-by-play via text. “I’m going to work today 15 more minutes at 11:45. I’ve worked for 3 of the 4 hours you paid me for, so you’ll have 45 minutes left after. I’m just finishing a ham sandwich I bought at the pier. My father’s funeral was two months ago now, and I’m finally ready to get back to focusing on work.” Um, thanks for sharing? This is awkward TMI. A detailed, concise summary for the day or week is fine with me. Too much info about timing signals you don’t think we trust you’re working, and it’s just extra information we need to sort through. In addition, lengthy stories about their personal life are really not necessary. Even if you happen to be “friends” with this person, designate separate time and place to connect that way.
- They demand you communicate in the mode they prefer. “Can we get on FaceTime?” they asked. I said, “How about a phone call?” “I’d really like to see your face.” “I’m in the car.” “I just like to see your reactions so I know you’re with me when we discuss this stuff.” “Ah, ok.” This person always wanted me to get on video with them for our meetings. It felt invasive and controlling, like they knew they could crawl inside me a little bit if they could see me.
- They use multiple mediums to communicate the same thing repeatedly. Phone or text or email, but not all three, reiterating the same information. They should stay away from long text threads and if there’s a lot to share, do it via email.
- Telling your client they’re unprofessional is literally unprofessional. They don’t ask if you’d like feedback, they just dole it out. Someone who adds a lot of extra judgments and opinions about you, your work, or your approach, is not helpful. They can be neutral and give a list of bullet points of things that need changing (on a website, for example), but they don’t need to label everything as “unprofessional”. They’d say, “What you’re doing with your website here might work in the Bay Area, but in the big leagues, they just won’t stand for it. You don’t get it yet, because you’re a big fish in a small pond, but… blah blah blah… (beat) Don’t say, ‘I’d love to meet with you in New York.’ Love is for boyfriends. It’s not professional. Say ‘I’d like to meet with you in New York.'” It’s fine to ask someone to improve something, but if there is an energetic component they’re bringing, a sort of “I know better than you and you’re really not good at XYZ.”, you’re getting “slimed”. Big time PR firms can get away with acting like assholes, because they truly do “know the biz”. But chances are, if your PR person is smaller, they don’t really know a whole lot more than you. They may even be projecting their lack of self-worth onto you. (In fact, if your work is niche, they might know less about your industry than you do.) If they really know what professional is, they’ll show it through respect of their client. Which leads me to this next red flag…
- They don’t truly trust and believe in you, but they work for you anyway. If they don’t actually believe in you, everything they say or do will be coming from that place. Everything will occur to you as an out-of-the-blue cutting remark predicated on them not believing in your approach. Their job is not to “put you in your place”, “humble you,”, “school you”, or be your guru. It is their job to get on the phone and build relationships on your behalf. This PR person would begin coaching me as if they were my pop psychology guru, telling me I’m acting from “ego mind” and I don’t really want to be happy or successful by the way I’m acting. I’m looking at the clock, thinking we could spend our time way better if we instead talk about what agents this person is going to contact next. This person once called me “Cinderella”, implying I’m waiting for someone to come and discover me instead of putting time into my creative career. I’m thinking I could have written a whole new hour of standup in the time it takes this person to communicate all this useless crap to me. They also didn’t consider that I might be spending time working another job to make money to pay them.) So yes, doing PR is a project of stepping outside your comfort zone, but it shouldn’t feel like a one-person-shamefest.
- They assume you are going to do the work alongside them. We are paying a PR person to do a great job. Their job is to take on the entire task, and give us the clear (extremely clear) option that if we want to save money, we can do XYZ ourselves, and they can show us how if we say yes. Again, we’re hiring them because we need to take a load off, not put another load on. Check their work and remember you are the ultimate arbiter of what they put out in the world to represent you, but know you don’t have to be involved in day-to-day details if it keeps you from creating more art or making more money. And of course, this one…
- They want you to be something you’re not. This is obvious. But don’t work with someone who wants to package you commercially in a way that just doesn’t feel right, whether that’s suggesting you should be way more sexy or more clean or more toned down or more outrageous than you truly are. It should feel like a stretch to step into who you’re becoming in the world – not an impossible or improper leap.
Hire someone because they’re affordable, creative, and powerful, and they believe in what you’re doing (not just paying lip service to your mission). But most importantly hire them because you feel aligned before, during, and after your interactions with them.
I shared my appreciation with this person for the hard work they did on my project and told them it was no longer a fit. And when the time is right, someone more aligned will help carry this suitcase up the next flight of stairs. Until then, I got this.