Michael Phelan O’Toole
CO 201 : Fundamentals of Public Relations
Project : Interview a PR Specialist
For this assignment, I interviewed Christine Ernest, head of the press department at The Planetary Group, a Boston-stationed PR firm which specializes in music artist promotion. Originally setting out for a career in journalism, Christine attended Cabrini College. Armed with a love of music, in addition to writing, while still pursuing journalism, she began working at the school’s radio station, WYBF, ultimately becoming music director. This position lead to travel to many music related conferences and trade events, such as The College Music Journal’s CMJ Music Marathon in New York, and the famed South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. As if out of a movie, it was on a plane ride back from South By Southwest that Christine was approached by someone working for the radio and music industry trade magazine FMQB. While The College Music Journal is responsible for compiling statistical chart information and publishes promotional information and reviews of up and coming artists playing on college radio stations, FMQB, or “Friday Morning Quarterback,” can be described as its larger, commercial industry counterpart. In working with FMQB, Christine initially helped compile their commercial radio chart listings, later getting the opportunity to merge her two major interests in a professional setting, in covering music news for the magazine. With her passion for the industry and impressive writing skills evident, she was soon
given part of a weekly column focusing on commercial specialty radio, which she would use to champion the college radio artists she was being exposed to through WYBF and other
college stations that she felt would be most successful on commercial radio. It is this type of passion-put-to-words in support of up and coming artists that would serve her in promotional writing for artists, and advocacy of their worth to journalists in her PR work today at Planetary. Despite where her path has lead her, she is quick to declare that her focus was always on journalistic writing itself, taking no specific PR course in college. Fearing her music-related endeavors would lead her away from writing itself, with a course load filled with journalism-geared classes, as well as English curriculum, she dove into working on her school’s newspaper; first as assistant editor and then main editor for the Arts and Entertainment section. Then it was a series of internships that cemented her print media infatuation, first in working with the daily Press of Atlantic City, then, going to school just outside of Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Business Journal. Christine stressed that some background in journalism and solid hands-on experience in the field in the form of an internship would be helpful to someone pursuing a PR position. For Christine, after an early graduation from college, while looking for work, it was a contact from her College Music Journal conference visits, impressed by her resume, that hired her at The Planetary Group. This had satisfied her desires for a dream job, placing her writing skills and experience and enthusiasm in the music realm to good use, in a team-oriented, nontraditional
environment, with like-minded people.
The Planetary Group’s press department holds a focus on getting consistent publicity for a wide-variety of music artists, both local and national, from new, unknown artists to Dave Mason of the band Traffic, who is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with artists who are signed to a record label, or self-releasing material. As head
publicist, Christine’s daily tasks at Planetary include work on crafting the promotional biography write-ups for the artist as well as the one-sheet information pertaining to their latest album, meeting with clients to make sure both she and they are updated on the current information pertaining to them, or if there are any new angles that can be approached in order to get journalists writing about them. With that, much of the time is spent writing press releases and sending them out to relevant media outlets, in addition to directly calling journalists and pitching clients and article angles or soliciting album reviews. If clients do not have a new record coming out, regardless they are encouraged to tour, as with an upcoming live performance date, it is easiest to get exposure, both in media coverage, and exposure to audiences and potential fans who will support further press. Christine emphasized that it is important for a local band to grow a foundation audience, and accrue even small, local press accolades before tackling larger forums. Planetary provides targeted campaigns for their clients, with a vast keyword-searchable electronic database to match-up artist genre with the proper media outlet. Having had working relationships with many of these press outlets allows her clients greater networking capacity, with the Planetary name holding weight in representing their efforts. Planetary embraces the PR team structure; heading up the
press department, Christine is joined by two other publicists, one working with her on national publicity, generally geared toward an artist’s album getting the most and widest spread reviews and coverage, and another publicist who focuses on tour publicity, centered on promotions of when and where a client is performing live. This is in addition to, and in conjunction with the radio promotions department, marketing department and others.
When asked what she enjoys most about her work, Christine underlined the fortunate opportunity she has in being able to appease her writing addiction in support of something she loves, in music. The most rewarding part of her work lives in being able to share in the successful meeting of her clients’ goals, and the objectives of the particular campaign. Pouring effort into providing a support system for a client’s art, and serving to help a journalist realize the value in investing the time to scribe their own piece about it, and subsequently getting the public interested, is a great joy. “The most rewarding part is just really helping clients. When I have a client, and they say
“This is what we want to achieve… This is my dream thing; I wish I could be in Spin (magazine).” We can’t do that for every artist, but if we can do it for a few, and it makes sense, it feels really great.”
Contrastly, the worst thing about her work rears its head, when the occasion comes when dedicated publicity efforts seem to hit a wall, in being ignored by journalists. Not only is it frustrating getting “white noise” in the communication channel when initial e-mails and phone calls are put out to no response, but on occasion messages will cease to be returned in mid-pitch discussions of a band or story angle, with no follow-up
explanation given. Still working as a freelance writer on the side, she knows the importance of a publicist’s pitch, and the rigors of a journalist’s deadline; having played on both sides, miscommunication or lack of follow-up stings greater. She talks of lazy journalists, and the importance of a PR person having their information together, ready to present things properly, noting that in a competitive, crowded industry like music, this appears even more essential to ensuring the likelihood of good coverage.
In focusing on what the future of music PR might be, she points out Planetary’s web-focused New Media department, which reaches out to “five hundred or more websites…From RollingStone.com to pitch work to a one-man blog.” with a campaign, while her goal remains in getting what is primarily print publication. According to her, the state of print media is in a bad way right now, with many people being
laid off from work. This is one of the reasons why she decided to no longer pursue full-time journalism. We talk about the possibility of the internet’s open forum, while positive in opening up the floor in expressing opinion and discussion, downgrading journalistic integrity and standards. While Christine agrees that music blogs may contribute to this, she is also quick to point out that if it is positive in getting the music heard, with people seeing it, then it can ultimately be helpful. With this, she offers up this held-onto quote from author and music critic Chuck klosterman, “There are a lot of smart people writing about music, but not a lot of people who are interested in journalism writing about music.” In her work as a publicist, Ms. Ernest aims to help see this change.
In continuing our discussion, I followed up with asking if she has seen the traditionally antagonistic relationship between journalists and publicists in her own work.. “I’ll agree with that. I’ve worked in news rooms, and I’ve seen writers just hang up (the phone) on publicists.” In defense of this, she notes the possibility of that publicist pitching something that did not make sense for the journalist to cover, however, she drives home the frustrations of, working as journalist, publicists wanting a client covered in a certain way, and yet not getting back to her to help meet their needs. If, as a publicist she sees incorrect information published, citing either miscommunication or writer’s laze as a factor, she’ll speak with the journalists and ask them to run a printed correction. “A lot of writers in the music industry, especially web-type people are kind of lazy, to be honest.”
Though she has never experienced the responsibility of having to run a “damage control” campaign due to an artist’s behavior. “If (our clients) did (do something that called for a damage control campaign), I think (we’d) just come up with a plan of action that makes sense, and act on it quickly.” What she has experienced more often, has to do with Planetary campaigns so tailored to particular album release and live show dates setup in advance, on the occasion dates are switched around, it is a fast-paced media blitz in recontacting journalists and other media outlets with the updated information.
In closing, we touched worked for her on her path to PR. “I went to a liberal arts school, English and Communications was my major… In mind, I just really liked music and I really liked writing, and I just tried out as many things as possible. I had some gigs
in the music industry and I was writing some. It was great to find this job, because it was like a marriage with both of them.”
From speaking with Christine, I have gained a personal insight into Public Relations work, with an assertion to the fact that a love of writing, a journalism background, passion for your clients, a willingness to communicate, and the ability to operate in a fast-paced environment are all prime components for success in PR. It is evident in Christine’s voice that she enjoys what she does, and her thoroughness in answering my questions illustrates a level of flexibility as well as professionalism. This assignment has helped me put a voice and clear perspective on a field that, I feel is generally vaguely defined. Overall, it was a lot of fun getting inside Christine Ernest’s head a bit, and checking out the interesting world of music publicity. Her words leave me with encouragement, as we share majors in Communication, an inclination toward English course work, and a love of writing, not to mention an interest in music.