As anyone involved in the music industry knows, public relations is an ever-important part of launching (and maintaining) one’s career. How you handle your relationship with your target market could either help or hurt, so having someone on your team whose job it is to manage and leverage those relationships is crucial.
Meet Sasha Brookner founder of boutique public relations firm Helio PR. Over the past 16 years, Brookner has worked with artists such Ceelo, N’Dambi, Katt Williams, Goapele, Ledisi, and Lira. We chatted with Sasha about her background, what it’s like being a publicist, and how she believes the branding and publicity paradigms are changing for emerging and established artists.
Check out the interview below!
MadameNoire (MN): What inspired you to be come an entrepreneur and launch your own PR firm?
Sasha Brookner (SB): When I was growing up, my mother and grandfather both had their own businesses. I was able to see the freedom they had as business owners. That was always in the back of my mind.
I went to UCLA and majored in history. During my last year, I didn’t have enough credits to graduate on time, so I decided to do some internships in publishing, A&R, promotion, and the last one was publicity. It was cool because I was working directly with writers to develop stories. I didn’t have to deal directly with the politics of music executives and labels. That was the beginning where I figured out I could do this.
As soon as I graduated, I got a job at Red Ant, a subsidiary of BMG, as an assistant publicist. When Red Ant went under, an associate called me up and wanted me to come over to The Courtney Barnes Group. I worked there for a couple of years and branched out and started my own company.
MN: What were some challenges you faced early on?
SB: When you start your own business, you have to be the rainmaker. At the time, I had saved up enough money so that I really wasn’t stressing it that much. Public relations is great because there wasn’t a lot of overhead. I started working at home. There weren’t a lot of hurdles because I was already seasoned as a publicist. Everyone told me that if I really did a good job and focused on whatever I was doing, things would spread word of mouth.
Another challenge was that I had to be very creative because I was working with independent grassroots artists who didn’t have radio, marketing, or worldwide tours. We were up against corporate firms who are already established and working with major label artists. In the beginning, you had to be much more creative with pitching.
MN: Who was your first client?
SB: N’Dambi. She had such an interesting story. Before we knew it, we got her in L’Uomo Vogue and Vogue Hommes. She was getting so much press even Erykah Badu (who she sang background for) was like “Wait, who’s doing your press?” This was before the female neo-soul thing took off. Now, it would be almost impossible to get a background singer selling CDs out the trunk of her car into these outlets.
We get 85 percent of our clients through referral. That started with N’Dambi. Then, Ledisi and Goapele were calling me. I saw artists that were falling short in marketing. That was our niche in the beginning. We expanded to painters, graphic designers, actors, and spoken word artists.
MN: What is it like to work with mainstream celebrity clients versus more grassroots artists?
SB: It’s easier. We started working with Katt Williams during the end of his Wildin’ Out season on MTV. He was taking off with Pimp Chronicles. When you’re working with someone who everyone wants to interview, it’s more work, but it’s not as challenging. It’s not like you have to pitch. Then again, there are problems such as personalities and missing photo shoots. When there’s a lot of money involved, there are a lot of issues and then you have to do crisis management.
Grassroots artists are my favorite and more satisfying. You’re taking people who normally wouldn’t get this type of exposure who are seasoned in their craft and helping them get to a plateau that they probably would not have.
With bigger artists you don’t want to over-saturate the market because you are getting so many requests. With independent artists, you want to do as much as you can that is quality press.
MN: How has the PR world changed over the years?
SB: The biggest shift has been the digital world. When we first started off, it was just magazines and television. Magazines worked four-to-five months in advance. Now, you can do a story and 24 hours later the story is up on an online site. The pieces are much more topical and newsworthy.
When I started off with music artists, they were just in musical publications talking about music. Now, the majority of my clients are all using fashion (and other creative avenues) as outlets to promote whatever projects they have.
MN: Why has celebrity branding become so prominent in our culture?
SB: The word “branding” has become a buzz word. I like my clients to be more fluid. I like to go and let it happen organically as opposed to typecasting someone, putting them in a box, and then selling that to the media.
However, I understand the importance of creating an identity that is recognizable to the people and the fans. Some people skip over the “Why are you important? What void do you fill?” You definitely have to live your brand, master your craft, and be known for something.
If it doesn’t match your personal brand, you shouldn’t do it. There are people like Taylor Swift who turn down movie scripts all the time that don’t reflect who she is. Or, someone like Immortal Technique, a rapper, who turns down corporate endorsement deals.
Reinvent yourself. Beyonce is the paragon of this. Do it so that it is an evolution and not a marketing scheme.
MN: How would you advise the everyday woman trying to build her brand?
SB: Interacting on social media is important. You have to figure out a way to mix the professional and personal. I’m really big on presentation. Find a good photographer and good writer for your bio.
That’s really important and is the first thing that you should do. When you’re dealing with media, they are top-notch English majors that went to journalism school and know their stuff. You can’t just hit them with something that is wack.
Network. I’m on Facebook all the time. I realized that all these people (like editors at Vogue) who may not have gotten back to me before were following my political tirades on Facebook. They loved my radical ideas and were like, “If you need anything, just shoot me over an email.” I realized that I was creating more relationships when I wasn’t even trying to.
Go to the sites that you want to be on and look for the Contact or About Us in the masthead. You can reach out to editors just to establish a relationship.
MN: What has allowed you to get so far in your career?
SB: Picking clients wisely is important. I won’t take on a client if I don’t think I can get them any press. I don’t care how much they’re paying. The industry is so small. People talk. We get 85 to 90 percent of our clients via word-of-mouth. I don’t want anyone unhappy. We’re very selective, however, yes, you do have some pay-your-bill clients.
Be proactive. Meet people. I always tell people, “Be careful. You could meet a guy at a party. He could have on ripped jeans and Birkenstocks and you pay him no attention. He could be the brother of the CEO of Coca Cola. You never know who somebody is.”
Be organized and get back to people. There are a lot of publicists I know who don’t. Even if I get back to say that an artist isn’t available or we can’t do it at this time, I make a point of trying to get back to people. I know publicists who worked at major labels and ignored everyone. Then, they branched off and started their own PR firms and those same editors won’t deal with them.
MN: Where do you see Helio PR going in the next few years?
SB: People have been asking me that for years, but it’s really just been consistently what I’m doing such as finding new acts that are dope. I don’t see myself being in a high-rise or corporate entity.
Although I only have four to six clients at a time, they are clients we are really invested into. What I do sustains my lifestyle. I get a lot of freedom. I get massages. I sleep eight to nine hours. What I do affords me the ability to live my life and do what I want to do.