Women in Music 2018: The Unsung Power of the Industry's Publicists

Amid a landscape of 24/7 news cycles and instant, direct-to-fan communication on social media, music publicists have become more important — and more powerful — than ever. As guardians for the brands of their artist and company clients, they are increasingly tasked with key strategic decisions, sometimes brokering brand partnership deals themselves, landing artist appearances and synch placements for songs on TV shows, helping companies sign new acts or leading artists into film, fashion and philanthropy.

Yet partly by design, public-relations pros rarely get public recognition for their work since their job is to keep their clients in the limelight. For example, Billboard historically has not included publicists on its industry power-player lists.

But many communications executives are increasingly concerned that lack of recognition is fueling broader gender bias in the music business because these unsung publicity roles attract more women than men.

Across industries, women comprise approximately 61 percent of PR specialists, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while key music business functions such as A&R and business development remain predominantly male.

Women dominate publicity for a variety of reasons: Many of the roles are flexible enough for them to work from home and advance their careers or start their own firms while raising children, for example, while the plethora of those at the top of the field serve as role models, inspiring and welcoming younger women to follow suit.

PR offers “a dynamic and creative environment for women” and “a job sector that consistently allows plenty of room for advancement,” says Carleen Donovan, founder/president of Donovan Public Relations.

Michelle McDevitt, co-founder/president of Audible Treats, says that the actual work can be a better fit for many women as well.

“If someone were to assign a gender to PR’s key skill sets — nurturing and guiding with care, being considerate and inclusive, keeping harmony among different parties, multitasking — those would probably all fall into the ‘woman’ bucket,” says McDevitt. “Society stereotypically views these traits as less valuable than those that are more male-centric, like being tough, strong-willed and good at negotiating — which is ironic, because publicists have to be tough as nails to succeed. When things go really well, our clients take all the glory. And when things look bad, we get all the blame.”

It’s not just the stay-behind-the-scenes mandate that keeps publicists from getting credit — and fair payment — for their wins. Another obstacle is lack of effective performance measurement. In the business world, the most “credit” goes to those who deliver the greatest return on investment. But, says Carrie Davis, chief communications officer at Live Nation, “Measuring the value of PR to a company’s bottom line is an inexact science. Marketers have metrics: They can show you how many more tickets they sold, how many more eyeballs they got. How do you judge brand value in terms of financial value? Measuring ad revenue or unique visitors alone doesn’t really do it. PR departments manage large budgets, but we’re not directly ‘earning’ or ‘losing’ money in the same way. It’s much more subjective.”

But the role is expanding in scope. Nowadays, a publicist is often the first and only staffer that new artists and their managers can afford to hire in the early stages of their careers, and in these cases, they are tasked with mediating relationships with streaming services, social platforms and potential brand partners in addition to press. Some are eschewing the “publicist” title altogether and identifying themselves as “brand strategists” instead.

Major labels are also looking for wider skill sets and networks compared with a decade ago — requiring their publicity heads to cultivate relationships with not just traditional press but also social influencers and streaming companies.

“The budgets for digital marketing and publicity at record labels are starting to overlap,” says one independent PR executive. “The big debate in PR circles now is which of those two departments will ultimately fall by the wayside. If you think about dollars and cents, it doesn’t make sense to have two people doing the same job.”

Amanda Silverman, who left 42West in 2018 to co-found her own firm, The Lede Company, believes that women in publicity should make sure their growing influence translates to a bigger paycheck. “Publicists historically are not included in brand deals even if they were instrumental in shaping the underlying story,” says Silverman. “Now the landscape has changed where PR is much more involved in deal discussions, and a lot of forward-thinking publicists are looking at ways to change their business model accordingly.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of Billboard.


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