By Jeff Walsh
Howard Bragman is in a lot of Rolodexes in Hollywood. He's often the person you hope you don't have to call. His clients have included the family of Monica Lewinsky during the Clinton scandal, Isaiah Washington when he was accused of calling T.R. Knight a 'faggot' on the set of Grey's Anatomy and, on the flip side, he helped prep Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger before they did media interviews for Brokeback Mountain, knowing they would be asked a lot about taking on these gay roles.
In his new book, "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?," Bragman boils down his years of experience into a gameplan that anyone can use to be mindful of their public perception and how to manage that perception. And it's not just for people who want to be novelists, musicians, and actors. Bragman says everyone has a public perception anymore, and what you post on Oasis, Facebook, in e-mails, and in person shapes that on a regular basis.
The one example that we discuss toward the end of our interview is how Oasis, being online for more than 13 years, has had many people who were newly out and proud teenagers a decade earlier, who are now in their late 20s and early 30s, and writing me because their teenaged ramblings here would be accessible to future employers and co-workers. This usually leads to me scrubbing their last name from previous entries.
Bragman has also done a lot of work on gay rights, so we get his thoughts from a PR perspective on what the gay community has to do in the wake of Proposition 8. Here's what we said:
The first thing I thought when I saw the title of your book 'Where's My Fifteen Minutes' is that I know so many people who go to L.A. to be famous and there's no polite way to ask them 'What exactly do you do?'
Right. What do you want to be famous for? Obviously, if you read the book, you know one of my central arguments is fame is not the end point. It's the by-product of a job well done.
Is that a message that's been lost?
I think people see so many people out there who seem to be famous for nothing, but what they don't understand is this… and I'll use two young ladies that I know and I'm actually fond of, which are Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. They got to be famous for being famous, right?
But, after they got famous, they were both smart enough to put good teams together and they're building brands that now support the fame. Most of us build the brands and the fame comes. They did it backwards, but it's still legitimate and credible the way they're doing it.
But there is the whole notion now where fame is more important than why you're famous.
Exactly. I use the phrase in the book that I want careers made in a crock pot, not a microwave. People are just so happy to be famous, but when you’ve lived in this arena for a long time and worked with a lot of famous people, you understand that fame is no guarantee of anything. It doesn't guarantee you an income. It doesn't guarantee you happiness. It just means when you cut someone off when you're driving, and give them the finger, it'll probably be in Perez Hilton the next day. It means if you give someone a bad tip, someone's going to know about it. If you go in the hospital, it's going to be in the tabloids. That's what fame is. While there's good sides to it, there's certainly down sides to fame, too.
Since you deal with a lot of celebrity clients, and we live in the TMZ/Perez Hilton world, is it frustrating for people who understand the concepts , who don't want this, but it's thrust upon them…
Nobody wants it, but when you don't deal with it, they have a name for people who don't understand this. It's called Michael Phelps. You know? To think you can go to a college party and I don't want to say take a bong hit, but pass around a bong, and to think there's not someone with a camera phone around. To think it's not going to get out is frankly naïve in this world we live in.
After Proposition 8, there was a lot of finger pointing… it wasthe blacks, it was the Mormons, it was this, it was that, we've got to be more vocal, and everyone was spinning in 100 different ways. If one of the groups came to you and said we need to have a cohesive strategy to channel all of this, what would your advice to the gay community be?
I would say look to the Barack Obama campaign as a model. I think we ran what's traditionally called in the marketing world a very top-down campaign, meaning we said 'How can we help?' and the leaders said 'You send money, and we'll buy the advertising and we'll control the message, and that's how we'll get it out.' We raised more money than the opposition, yet they still controlled the message, and they still won.
And what I would tell people is we have to do exactly what is happening spontaneously: we have to build a movement. We have to do it on Facebook and phone trees and MySpace and YouTube, and all the places where people build movements. We have to do it with e-mail. And instead of going and throwing rocks at businesses or people we don't like right now, it was very obvious to me that we need to build bridges, not walls at this point in our history.
One of the reasons we lost is we didn't have enough bridges with people of color. We didn't have enough bridges with people of a certain age, who we thought were our voters. We thought 'Well, Obama's going to win, so we're going to win.' We need to go out and change hearts and minds. I get grief on this, but I beliee we're a civil rights movement and we need to tell people we're a civil rights movement, and we want the same things they do.
Is the danger of saying you're a civil rights movement that we're drawing too many parallels between our rights and the rights of African Americans?
I can tell you this… I was born gay just as assuredly as Michelle Obama was born black. And if I'm denied certain rights because of how I was born, then I feel I'm entitled to those rights, and I feel it is a civil rights issue, quite frankly. That's my opinion. I'm not talking about years of research… but when we pay more taxes than straight people, when we're getting screwed, very clearly it's a civil rights issue for me.
I get a little tired of how messages 'test out' in the world, okay? Mark Penn, who's one of the best researchers in the world and ran the strategic part of Hillary's campaign… I'm sure all their messages test well, but in the end, they didn't win because it's not enough just to do the test, you have to connect with people, and you have to do it one person at a time, one neighbor at a time. Advertising is just not the tool it used to be.
In the old days, if you wanted to reach 85 percent of the public, you bought three network television ads. Well, in this world we live in, you have to buy over 1,200 TV ads to reach 85 percent of the population, and if they do see your ad, they don't always believe your ad. So there's a different set of responsibilities and a different way to market here, and I'll tell you a true anecdotal story.
I had celebrity clients who supported Obama and who supported Clinton. If I called the campaigns and said, 'Hey, this person's doing an interview, what do you want them to say?' Clinton's people would send you a list of messages. 'Here's our messages. Here's what we want him to say. Make sure they stay on message.' And Obama's people would consistently would say 'Howard, have them speak from the heart. We know they're on our side. We know that they like us. Just have them speak from the heart.' And I think we need a little more speaking from the heart and a little less of this control concept.
Does that not bode well for the gay organizations? Are they ready to retool along those lines?
I think they have to. If they don't learn from their mistakes, then they're certainly not serving us well. If they can't figure out what's screwed up here… and everybody's looking for people to blame, but we've got to take some of the responsibility ourselves. I went to a dinner in Palm Springs, where one of my clients was performing, and there were like 800 people there. And we don't need to give speeches about Prop 8 to our own community. We understand that. Why weren't these same 800 people not knocking on doors in Latino neighborhoods and black neighborhoods and upscale neighborhoods in Palm Springs and saying 'Here's me and here's my husband, and here's why we're doing this, and we hope you'll support us'? When you put a face on this, it changes a lot of things.
I know on election day, there were about 20 people with 'No on 8' signs on my corner… and I live in the Castro.
Yeah, what a fucking waste of time and energy. You know the battle was not for gays and lesbians. The battle was not for the religious right. The battle was for the undecided. If those people had been in the Marina or Mission districts, they might've done a little more good.