Howard was extremely generous with his time, allowing me to interview him for about 30 minutes and share the audio with you. My first podcast. It was totally worth it.
Among the topics we discussed:
- How messages can evolve. Nonprofits often do messaging poorly — neither strategic nor sticky.
- The Red Cross. What they’re doing really well.
- Celebrities. Whoopi Goldberg received over 20 requests a DAY to attend events. Why should she come to yours?
- The perfect fundraiser. If you start with a VIP reception, you drag attendees through 5 or 6 painful hours of a special event. Howard offers a better way.
- Mission fatigue.
You should listen to what Howard has to say. An in-depth discussion with one of America’s biggest messaging gurus.
No charge. No brainer.
Have a listen:
For the full transcript, click here.
An Interview with Howard Bragman – Transcript
Joan Garry: I’m here today with publicist and messaging guru Howard Bragman, arguably one of the most prominent Hollywood publicists ‑‑ I’m not sure Howard would argue with that ‑‑ as well as the Vice Chairman of Reputation.com. Through the years, Howard has represented a wide variety of clients from Cameron Diaz to Sony to AIDS Project Los Angeles, and has done a ton of crisis management work representing folks like the Lewinsky family. He currently runs a shop called Fifteen Minutes and has written a book called “Where’s My Fifteen Minutes?”
Welcome, Howard. How are you?
Howard Bragman: I’m prominent, damn. I’m prominent. [laughs]
Joan: Let me tell you how prominent you are, Howard. You know the quotes that authors secure from well‑ known people when their book is about to be published, the ones that you work so hard to secure? Well, I think you did yourself proud with one of them. By the way, I found out that I had one of them as well, but this one was not mine. Academy Award winning producer Steve Tisch said this about you. “At the end of the seventh day, God realized he needed a publicist, so God made a couple of calls. Every one recommended Howard Bragman, and the rest is history.” Fess up, Howard. Did you write that quote for Steve Tisch?
Howard: No, he wrote it himself. But you want to know what’s funny? People talk about the PR business, say, “Wow, it’s really a new business, isn’t it?” Actually, the PR business is in the Bible, if you go through the Old Testament as my people do. Moses and God are talking. God said, “I’m going to give you these Ten Commandments. You present them to everybody.” Moses said, “God, I’m not real articulate.” God said, “I’ll tell you what. Your brother Aaron is a pretty good talker. I’ll tell you what to say. You tell Aaron. Those are the same roads to the achievement we want.” So Aaron was the first publicist. It’s biblical. We’re the second oldest profession.
Joan: [laughs] That’s pretty good. Here I am, a former nonprofit executive director and currently an educator like you. You have been teaching at USC, and I teach at the Annenberg School at UPenn. But now I like this nonprofit consultant blogging gig. Maybe my listeners are wondering why I’ve dragged Howard Bragman onto a podcast. I have three very specific reasons. First of all, Howard plays regularly in the nonprofit space. He walks the walk. He’s done work in the AIDS and HIV community, on Jewish causes, and the First Amendment protections. He’s received awards from APLA, from GLAAD, from Congregation Kol Ami.
Something I did not know, which is that you founded the Jewish Image Awards honoring positive portrayals of Jews in television and film.
Howard: Yeah, because everybody knows there’s hardly any Jews in Hollywood.
Joan: [laughs] Number two reason to have Howard Bragman on a podcast. Good, sticky messages are good, sticky messages regardless of the organization. The third one represents my own personal bias. Nonprofit organizations do not message well. We’re going to cover four categories. It’s like “Jeopardy,” Howard. I want to start with talking about nonprofits and their core messaging. Secondly, I want to talk about the four gazillion fundraisers you have been to over time, and how messaging at fundraising doesn’t work and how it should work. I want to ask you a little bit about messaging fatigue, missions that may be exhibiting some fatigue.
Last but not least, I want to talk…It seems a little bit off message, but a little bit about celebrity board members, just because you play in that space. I’m thinking about doing a full blog post on the notion of celebrity board members, and think you might have some good thoughts about how I might approach that, actually. I want to pick your brain.
Let’s start with core messaging. You seem and been involved with so many great nonprofits, but sometimes they just don’t seem to get their messaging right. What do you think great messaging from a nonprofit looks like? What do you think are the core elements?
Howard: There are two parts to it. One is making sure that they get their messaging down, that it’s simple messaging and everybody agrees. That’s probably the hardest thing ‑‑ coming to this agreement that these are our core messages.
Joan: Clearly, you’re talking about internal agreement.
Howard: Yeah, internal agreement, board agreement, staff agreement. The staff, the board all have to be on the same page as to what our messages are, and defining the organization if you wrote the elevator pitch of the organization. A lot of organizations spend a lot of time and money writing mission statements, writing what they do. It’s really important that they do this, that they all come to this consensus, that everybody has a voice in it ‑‑ the staff, the donors, the board, the clients if you will. All the interested parties have to come together and come up with these statements together.
It’s not something that should happen in a vacuum, and not something that a marketing director should sit at his desk one day and just whip out.
Joan: But the challenge in that is, you’ve got a lot of cooks in the way you described it.
Howard: Absolutely, but messages, at their heart, successful messaging is pretty simple messaging. If you don’t get too complicated and you keep it simple, you should probably be able to do it. If you can’t do it, it may really point to other problems in the organization, quite frankly. I just media‑trained a young man, an 11‑year‑old who is going to be in a movie, this afternoon. As I told him ‑‑ I used this chart that looks like a baseball diamond ‑‑ that you get about four messages. You get beyond four messages and you lose people. Don’t make them too complicated. Don’t make them paragraphs for people to memorize.
I’ve been to special events where a celebrity will show up. They’re about to walk the red carpet. Some PR person will run out with three pages, hand it to the celebrity and go, “Here’s your messaging for the red carpet.” Really? You’re going to give them four pages to read 30 seconds before they’re doing an interview with “Entertainment Tonight?”
Joan: And then there are the celebrities that forget what event or charity they’re actually at.
Howard: I like to remind people. I think that’s why you’ve got to keep it simple. Number one is that you have to get to consensus on messaging. Once you get to that consensus, then what you have to understand is that this message has to be consistent against all platforms ‑‑ when the staff is talking about the organization, when the clients are talking about the organization, when the board is talking about the organization, on social media, in mainstream media. That’s the real challenge. The third part of that is, there could be event‑specific messaging. That is, if you’re a charity, a not‑for‑profit…We call them “not‑for‑profits” now. “Charity” is probably a bad word. The not‑for‑profit world, if you’re doing a special event, it might be some event‑specific messaging, but you never want to forget your umbrella messaging about the organization. Truly important to get to that point.
Joan: Can I put you on the spot? Can you think of a nonprofit organization in any sector that you think does it really well?
Howard: I think the Red Cross is really pretty strong in messaging. I think most people understand. That’s not a judgment on the organization. I think there are probably other problems with the organization. When you see the Red Cross, people understand the Red Cross helps people in disaster situations. Simple is better. But let me say this. I was on the board of AIDS Project Los Angeles for many years. AIDS Project Los Angeles is a social service agency that helps across many areas of the AIDS and HIV crisis. They provide food. They provide caseworkers. They provide counseling. They do groups. They do many things.
Another great organization in the AIDS world is Project Angel Food. Project Angel Food in LA does one thing. They get food to people, home delivery of food to people with AIDS, HIV and life‑threatening illnesses.
Certainly a lot easier to message, “We bring food to people with AIDS and HIV and life threatening illnesses,” than it is to say, “We provide 12 different range of services,” Some organizations have a natural advantage when it comes to messaging. Some are a little more complicated.
Joan: It’s interesting. I work with GMHC in New York, which is essentially the East Coast counterpart of APLA. I think that a challenge that organizations can face, that have a range of services offered to clients, is that they can put the services in the foreground and not the client. It can become a laundry list of services in which the client takes a back seat as opposed to, “We serve clients and offer them the following range of services. A person with HIV and AIDS has a variety of issues that present that we address.”
Howard: We can never forget the clients. We’re not there to serve the board or our donors, we’re there to serve our clients.
Joan: Exactly. Just a hypothetical situation for you, Howard. Let’s say you’re a small communications department in a nonprofit. You have a communications director, a press person, the person who designs the materials, and then you’ve got a webmaster. Let’s say you’ve got a $15, $20 million budget. Your budget size is not small. But you also don’t have a lot of firepower in terms of people who have the ability to strategically think about messaging and cutting through the clutter to be able to get those messages out. Thoughts about that, if that’s your organization can you do that without spending a lot of money?
Howard: I think you can. I think my own public relations firm inevitably has one or two non‑profits we represent, and those are things people who work here are passionate about or one of our key clients are passionate about. If you’re not‑for‑profit, look to your donors, look to your resources, look to your supporters, and see is there any PR professional out there or messaging professional out there who can maybe give you a little of their time. You’d be shocked. All you have to do is ask and most people are willing to come in for a couple hours. Most nonprofits have off sites, and it’s often a very good opportunity to spend an hour or two on these very issues of message and media. I think it’s well worthwhile when you have your key constituents together.
I think the help is out there and not for a lot of money. If you’re in Los Angeles or New York in a bigger city, there’s going to more to choose from. If you’re in a smaller city, even if you have to pay, it’s likely going to be less expensive.
Joan: Yeah, good point. I do think a lot of nonprofits don’t realize the sort of treasures that are in their groups of stakeholders. Let’s move on to talk a little bit about fundraisers. My guess is you’ve eaten enough chicken, grilled salmon and preset salads to last you quite a long time, and…
Howard: I have this vision of the perfect fundraiser. For me, it’s like a premier, a DVD premier of a movie, and you pay your $500 and it goes to the charity, but instead of having to go schlep across town, pull into the valet, shave, wear nice clothes, you basically sit at home, the movie and a meal gets delivered to you, and you get to sit home in your boxer shorts and watch the movie, and then you’re happy.
Joan: Well, there’s a challenge with that though, don’t we think, Howard, because you don’t actually get the opportunity to drink the organizational Kool‑Aid.
Howard: I think as a one‑time kind of event for an organization that does too many events, it might work.
Joan: [laughs] It might.
Howard: There’s probably some printed material, and you can have things like Skype and Google Plus that will bring us all together, too.
Joan: Something to think about. I wanted to talk about fundraisers, and so particularly every fundraiser you go to the executive director gets dragged out onto the stage and gives some kind of a speech. That’s supposed to kind of bring together the centerpiece of messaging about the organization. Some ED’s do it well. Some ED’s actually don’t do it very well. Observations about ED speeches at fundraisers, and if you have an ED that’s not a really good public speaker, are there different ways to do that?
Howard: I’d like to talk about fundraisers in general. Can I go broader first before…
Joan: You absolutely may.
Howard: The first thing I always tell people when they say they want to do a fundraiser is create an event that people would want to go to even if it wasn’t a fundraiser. I know it’s a challenge. It’s easier in cities like L.A. or New York where we have lots of celebrities running around, and maybe you can get a well‑known singer, a well‑known comedians, a well‑known celebrity to host it. But it shouldn’t be punishment. It shouldn’t be holy. “Oh god, I’ve got to go there.”
The second thing is you’re very blessed when you have people show up. And you should treat them like guests. You shouldn’t treat them like, “Aha, we have them. Now we will abuse them,” because you and I have both been to events where the VIP’s party starts at 5:30, and the charity auction starts at 6:30, and you’re sitting down to dinner at 8:30, and people eat for an hour.
At 9: 30 the show starts, and it goes 112 minutes, and realize you have people there four, five, six hours. And nobody can handle that. I’m sorry. It’s not a marathon. It’s not an endurance thing. If you get people there an hour and a half to two and a half hours, if you can’t achieve what you need in that time, you’re doing something wrong.
Joan: Agreed. Absolutely agreed.
Howard: Among that, there’s a lot of business to be done. The business is the executive directors, the co‑chairs of the event. I think if you have an ED I think you have to be realistic, and you have to…if you have an ED who’s not particularly articulate, you better have a board member or a board chair who is articulate, and you better have the cajones or chutzpa to be able to tell that person that we’re going to use you in a more limited way. What you do? The ED says I’m Jane Doe, and I’m honored to be the executive director. Thanks for joining us tonight,” and then say, “I’m going to show you a little video about our organization and what we’ve done in the past year.” Everyone applauds and they, “Now I’d like to introduce you to the host for tonight’s event who is your local newscaster,” who’s going to keep it moving, and you’ve given them a prominent role and not punished the audience too much.
Joan: One of the things I think organizations could be better at is creating what I would call, “mission‑centric events.” These fall into the non‑punishment category. At least I think so. When you’re lucky, as I believe we were at GLAAD, you could do an award show where you couldn’t forget what the event was about from start to finish, and it may also have fallen into the category you described of an interminable length that said…you didn’t need the ED to tell you what the organization was about, that the event was itself what I like to call, “mission‑centric.”
If organizations can build mission‑centric events, I think those have greater value, not just in how much money is raised that evening, but in terms of just building goodwill and future donors and stakeholders to the organization.
Howard: I couldn’t agree more. I think if you do an event that’s so off target that has nothing to do with your organization, then maybe there’s different ways to do it, maybe in the program book, maybe one quick video, one quick speech, a donation envelope that’s passed out. But you want to be really aware of and realistic about what your event is, if it’s a mission‑centric event, or if it’s just a great fundraiser that’s going to be a lot of fun, and you should never forget the organization, though.
Joan: Nor should you ever forget the fact that you have an audience of people that it’s not necessarily about always about what you want to say, but that you actually have to play to an audience of people who’ve given money and who did actually get all dressed up and shaved. Moving on to this notion of messaging fatigue, and top of mind for me with HIV and AIDS causes in particular, any thoughts from a messaging guru about how a nonprofit might deal with kind of mission fatigue? I think AIDS probably tops that list, and I’m sure there are others as well. Thoughts, or ideas, or strategies on how to combat that?
Howard: Well, there are different types of things. There are some diseases, if you will, that kind of evergreen. If you’re talking about breast cancer, other than I think October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it’s going to cut across most of the time. When I was really active in the AIDS crisis…I mean my friends were dying at an astounding rate so…It was in the newspapers and that makes it both easier and harder. It’s really unrealistic to think that the passion people have for AIDS when their best friends are dying is going to be the same now.
But the good news is for these AIDS organizations is they’ve gotten smarter. They’ve gotten more mature. There’s government funding and things that replaces some of the fundraising costs, and the AIDS charities in particular were some of the best fundraisers.
I mean go watch the documentary, “How to Survive a Plague,” that was Oscar nominated, and you really learn that we became a model for activism for fundraising because no one would help us, and we had to help our own, and then all of a sudden all these other charities sort of stole our thunder, and they learned from us.
Joan: Yes, I did.
Howard: I remember early on my first PR firm, we were the PR firm that did the Tanqueray AIDS rides, and we raised…We were the PR people that helped raise millions and millions of dollars for AIDS and HIV, and then the Avon Breast Cancer Walks were modeled by the same company, and we did the PR for those, and those came from there. There’s not unlimited money. They’re all important, though, and if you do your stuff well, you’re not going to feel the competition. You’re only going to feel the competition if you’re not keeping up and to doing your job well.
Joan: Yeah, I think that’s right. This messaging topic, not necessarily a message fatigue topic, but it was very prominent. It’s been prominent in the last couple of weeks, and I had breakfast yesterday with Alexander Sanger who’s the grandson of Margaret Sanger, the founder of the modern reproductive rights movement. He gave me some amazing statistics that relate to messaging, and I wanted to just toss them out to you for your consideration and thoughts. He said Gallup did a poll in 1974, which said that if you…They polled the people. 25 percent of Americans felt that all abortions should be legal, 15 percent none should be legal, and 60 percent said some should be legal. OK, so 25, 15, and 60.
Today, 2013, Gallup replicates the poll, and the numbers have not changed one iota. And so, Planned Parenthood and the reproductive rights sector is really trying to dissect what it is that has…what the issue is that isn’t changing public opinion. They’ve landed on the notion that the word, “choice,” may not be working, which I think is very interesting.
There’s an article I think I sent you this morning that they’re trying on different kinds of messages. And some…
Howard: But understand they’re in a unique position. If you’re talking about a breast cancer organization, or an autism organization, or an HIV organization, there’s not an opposing organization that says, “No, let them rot,” [laughs] But if you’re Planned Parenthood, there are anti‑abortion groups that are aggressively working against your core messages.
Joan: And fundraising like hell on those messages.
Howard: And so, you have a different contentious situation and the religious right is very good at organizing and fundraising and messaging as we’ve seen time and time again. One of the reasons that they remain a little more static than some of the other organizations is perhaps because they have the vocal opposition.
Joan: Could be. Could be, but it’s very interesting if you’re poking around on the Internet and blogs that Planned Parenthood is really starting to think about whether or not messaging is at the heart of their…or at least part of their problem trying on phrases like, “reproductive justice,” and…
Howard: Well, and understand that pro‑choice was not a proactive statement that came out.
Joan: No, it was reactive.
Howard: It was reactive to the pro‑life movement.
Howard: They needed to come up with something. You know, as I always say, you know years ago when I worked at Anheuser‑Busch, those people who are watching or listening who are old enough to remember, remember that Michelob used to have this campaign, “Weekends were Made for Michelob,” OK?
Joan: Sadly, I remember this.
Howard: OK, yeah, well, now that we’re in our late twenties we remember this stuff. But all of a sudden Michelob did really well on the weekends, and they go, “Wow, this stuff’s not selling during the week so you have to broaden it.” I think pro‑choice worked. I think it’s naive to think that messages do not have to evolve, and I give them a lot of credit for looking at the research and considering how to move the message forward. I think there’s a lesson there for every organization because your message worked today it might not work two or three years down the road.
Joan: Yeah, interesting. One of the things that one of these articles said was that the world choice does really capture the complexity and emotion of the issue, and anything that you ever read on progressive causes and progressive messaging ‑‑ I fancy myself in that category ‑‑ is that progressives get themselves all caught up in complex messages that can’t cut through the clutter and that people can’t don’t really hear. I think they’re going to have to be careful as they look for different language that they don’t overcomplicate it because the religious right is quite good at making things very, very simple.
Howard: I don’t think it’s limited to progressive organizations. I can tell you all sort of organizations mess it up. So does the right wing sometime.
Joan: Yeah, agreed. One last thing before I send you on your way, and this may be a tease to inviting you back to talk more about it, but I’m fascinated about…I write a lot about boards and what makes them effective, and one of the things that I think about a lot is the idea of this…The notion that for organizations sometimes finding a celebrity seems like the Willy Wonka golden ticket. If only I can bring on a celebrity for my board who could champion the cause, raise money, bring all her celebrity fans to our big fundraisers and all would be well with the world. As somebody who dances on the dance floor with celebrities in Hollywood with some regularity, what’s the best strategy?
Can a celebrity be successful on a board, and if I’m a nonprofit ED what advice would you have for me about cultivating a prospect for my board who’s a pretty well known celebrity?
Howard: Here’s what I have to say about that. As a PR guy I get requests all the time for my celebrity to do this. I wrote about that extensively in my book. Understand that if you’re in Des Moines, Iowa, and you want a celebrity to show up then first of all it’s got to be the right celebrity, some celebrity that’s going to resonate with your cause Secondly, you have to find the right way to reach them. There are databases online that people can…IMDB and WhoRepresents.com, et cetera, that that tell you how to get to the representatives of that celebrity. But understand that if you get a celebrity to show up for your event that it’s a wonderful thing, but first of all it’s generally going to take two first class tickets, a hotel suite, expenses, limos. There’s a significant cost.
A celebrity’s not going to show up and pay their own way. Plus you get a musical group you’ve got the staging…This is all stuff you know, but you’ve got their staging, their sound checks, their microphones, their requirements, and you get a big musician you’ve got their band, and generally the band is union, and you have to pay the band.
So understand what you want a celebrity for. Do you want them to be on an honorary board? Do you want them to walk a red carpet? Do you want them to perform? Or do you want them to be a true board member. I’ve seen very, very, very few instances of true celebrities being board members.
An exception I can think of, and she was an amazing board member, was when the legendary actress Judith Light was on the board of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. A great board member, did a lot, a working board member. It’s hard for most celebrities. They don’t control their schedules. They have other commitments, and it’s not always the best use of a celebrity, to be honest.
Joan: Yes, I think that’s right, and I also think that there can end up being double standards among board members and their contributions when there’s a celebrity on your board, and it’s just hilarious that you mentioned Judith, because when I think about exemplary celebrities who walk the walk and have served as effective board members, the list is mighty short, and Judith…maybe Judith has company on that list, but I’m pretty sure she’s pretty near the top.
Howard: Yeah, it’s…no, Judith is a unique lady in many ways.
Joan: But I think your point is well taken that for a while because we were successful at GLAAD in securing celebrities for our events there was a period f time when we would get calls from other LGBT organizations around the country who perceived us to be the sort of William Morris of the gay community and, “Can you get us the cast of L Word?” It’s like, “No, I got the cast of the L Word because I have press galore at the Kodak Theater and the publicist has recommended that the cast of L Word be at that event. What can you offer?”
Howard: Exactly, and they have to think about what they’re offering, and who they’re offering, and how they’re going to treat that celebrity, and you had professional PR people and professional staff and volunteers who knew how to treat a celebrity. A limo would pick them up. Somebody would walk them into the event, walk them to the red carpet, accompany them, and they didn’t have to figure it out. You made it easy.
Joan: Just for the record, for my listeners and viewers, the limos were donated and the escorts were volunteers. We were able to a lot with a little in that. There we were at the Kodak Theater, but we were able to keep that cost of fundraising amazingly low because, as you said earlier, we tapped into a universe of stakeholders who wanted to participate in that event and were willing to donate their time and services to do so.
Howard: I will tell you that celebrities are looking for the right opportunities. I’ve always said that the golden trifecta is a celebrity, a brand, and a cause. You get those three together and you’ve created this wonderful magic that works for all of them in their own way. Nobody did it better than GLAAD, I think. You guys had amazing celebrities, amazing corporate sponsors, and an important cause. You take those three.
I don’t care where you are, there’s great talent. All you’ve got to do is watch “American Idol” and understand that great talent isn’t limited to LA or New York. There’s a lot of people who want to show their stuff in this world. People will perform. So many people are like, “I want Whoopi Goldberg. I want Madonna.” These types of people, I can tell you…
Whoopi Goldberg was a client of my last agency. This is a woman who would get, what, 20 invites a day for events. Then they would start calling. “I know she would want to go if she just heard about it.” She does care. It’s not to say that she’s not passionate, but my God, there’s only so much time and so much bandwidth that anybody has.
Think about the second lead‑on, or think about a theatrical star, or think about somebody who sings in a local cabaret. They’re still going to draw people.
Local newscasters are always looking for opportunities to host events, because that’s part of the charter that local TV stations have. They want their newscasters, and such, to show up.
Joan: Yeah. Some of it is about anticipating who’s going to get big, too. We had a good nose because we had connections out in LA and New York. We could get Alan Cumming before he…After “Cabaret” and before “The Good Wife.” We had Rufus Wainwright before he became really popular. There’s ways to dig around and get the next big thing, as well.
Howard: The thing I was going to say is, I like honorary boards, or honorary chairs, for events. This is a way to get celebrities to lend their names to your events, or your organization, without having the same amount of requirements as they would by actually being a true board member.
Joan: Exactly. I really was going to cut you off after you complemented GLAAD and end there, because it seemed like such a warm and fuzzy way to end this conversation but any last things you’d like to toss out there, in terms of the topics we’ve been discussing this evening?
Howard: I hadn’t been on a board in a while. I just joined a board in Los Angeles. It’s the Center Theatre Group, which is the preeminent not‑for‑profit theatrical experience in LA. We have three theaters ‑‑ the Ahmanson, the Taper, and the Kirk Douglas. It had been a while. I’m not the most patient man. To sit through board meetings can be…I get “spilkes,” as my people say. I get ants in my pants. But it’s great to be back. It’s great to know that whatever you do, every board needs people. The boards I’ve been on, you think you’re giving to the board? Let me tell you. Anybody who truly serves on a board ‑‑ when I say “serve,” I mean “does a commitment and contributes” ‑‑ gets infinitely more that and they ever give. It’s an honor. Anybody who’s on a board is doing holy work, in my book. Keep up the good work.
Joan: It is indeed true. I think board service is a privilege. When I write about board service and how it can be more effective and gratifying, a lot of it is about that. It’s really whacking people upside the head to say, “This is an opportunity for you to give as much as you get.” Or get as much as you give. [laughs]
Howard: [inaudible 36:50] .
Joan: On that note, Howard Bragman, it was really nice catching up with you. I really appreciate your time.
Howard: Any time. Thanks, Joan.
Joan: Take care, Howard.