Donna ON PR: Publicists Can Do Good Things, I Promise

Yes, my specialty is marketing and publicity on behalf of film and television programs, but I’ve also been told that I have a flare for coming up with campaigns that are tailored to meet the needs of my projects. In this column, I hope to share some of my passion and expertise and provide you with guideposts on your journey to tell your own amazing stories.

I’m not at all used to writing about myself. I’m far more comfortable crafting film synopsis and bios; developing talking points for my clients; and creating effective strategic campaigns on behalf of the films I represent. I promise, once this introductory column is out of the way and you know why I have something to say, I’ll move on to the more juicy topics and practical advice that will help you think about how to best market and your films.

Brought to You by the Letters L (Liz) and O (Oprah)

My inspirations for getting into the entertainment business began with a passion for journalism in high school when I worked on the school newspaper and yearbook committees. Throughout my teens and 20s, my two biggest idols were Liz Walker, a Boston news anchor who shattered the glass ceiling, and talk show host, Oprah Winfrey. These dynamic and powerful black women were part of my daily life for almost 10 years and have had a lasting impact on my career in film and television marketing and PR for nearly two decades.

publicistsI grew up in a rural New Hampshire town 60 miles north of Boston with very little diversity. I was one of just a few kids of color in my high school graduating class. Television wasn’t a channel, but an avenue from which I was able to see the possibilities that lay before me. Programs like Frontline, Nature, NOVA, Oprah, as well as local and national news presented me with a view of the world and told me stories that helped me understand what awaited me. Say what you will about television, but there is no denying its impact on culture, community, and people like me.

By 10th grade, I was confident that television and film would play a big part in my life. At the time, I didn’t know that my specialty would become marketing and PR, but I did know that I wanted to be a part of great storytelling. Initially, I thought my role would be in front of the camera as a television news reporter.  But, after talking with a number of female reporters, I quickly realized that the challenges associated with women and on-camera journalism were more than I could handle and I headed in a different direction.

0… 2… 1….. 3… 4….

After college, I landed in Boston, the closest big city I could find. I blindly landed a temp gig at WGBH. I started on the radio side and was thrilled to sub-in at PRI’s The World, a new show that was a co-production of the BBC and WGBH Radio. It was an incredible experience. I used to take calls from the BBC in London and then race down to the studio and hand over breaking news stories to the on-air hosts. I’m grateful to have worked side-by-side and learned from some incredible storytellers, journalists and writers.

After my time with The World, I moved from WGBH radio to WGBH National Productions where I began my journey into television marketing. Looking back, I realize that I had no idea how incredible and rich this experience would be and how the things I learned and the people I met would be a common thread throughout my career. During my time in WGBH Station Relations, I traveled to PBS stations across the United States, meeting with top-level programmers and executive producers to assist them with local marketing initiatives for WGBH series and specials.  I represented a variety of WGBH series and specials, including ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, NOVA, This Old House, The Victory Garden, and Africans in America. I thoroughly enjoyed my travels and realized that, although I was passionate about PBS programming, there was a big world outside of WGBH and I wanted to explore it.

California Here I Come

During the next five years, I worked with independent producers on the west coast and widened my knowledge of communications to include advertising, public relations, and grassroots marketing on both the in-house and agency level. Some of these experiences were exceptional and others, well, let’s just say, it’s true that, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. No matter which side of the camera you’re on, it takes thick skin to be in the business of film and television. Good or bad, all these experiences helped me get to where I am today.

Just before I opened my own consulting business, I ran the television division for a major entertainment agency in Los Angeles for eight months. I realized rather quickly that it was time to start my own PR and Marketing agency where I could focus on projects that were a better match for my personality. I knew if I ever wanted to start a family, I’d have to open up my own business.  So, in February 2008 – On and On Marketing & Communications was born.

On and On took on its first clients five years ago and I haven’t looked back. We’ve grown from four to 40 projects, mostly focused on films and television series/specials with major grassroots engagement campaigns.  It hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve survived despite a snarky economy and time off to have a baby (Simone Olivia, who is now 3 ½).

If I hadn’t opened up my own business, I know I wouldn’t have the opportunity to write this column while listening to Simone’s chirpy singing from her room as she plays with her dolls and toys. In fact, I wouldn’t have this column if it weren’t for the visibility I gained from working on my dream project, the PBS documentary SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME.

Project of a Lifetime

In 2010, National Productions approached me about submitting an RFP for its new production based on Pulitzer-Prize winning author Douglas A. Blackmon’s book, Slavery By Another Name. The project didn’t have a large marketing budget – in fact, I worked at a rate that was about half my normal fee. But that’s the great thing about running your own business; when something that special comes along you have to look at the big picture impact. I knew money wasn’t going to keep me from working on this incredible film.

As an agency, I keep overhead very lean and work with other communication specialists across the country on a project-by-project basis. If budget doesn’t allow for adding team members, then I build a campaign that I can handle on my own that works for that particular film and filmmaker.

You never know what will happen through the life of any campaign. With SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME – most of those involved from the beginning knew this could be a great film but we had no idea it would end up on the festival circuit and be an official selection at SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2012. Once we learned that the film had been accepted, we had to build a new marketing strategy for its presence at Sundance as well as a national press conference at TCA. It was perfectly timed and helped create incredible buzz for the film prior to its national broadcast premiere on PBS in February 2012.

Philosophy

As a marketing consultant, I love that I have the ability to work one-on-one with filmmakers, join mission-focused films, and build impactful campaigns that lead to engagement, awareness, and tune-in.

Each project that On and On represents has its own unique rhythm and each campaign I design for my filmmakers takes into account the specifics of each story. While big picture goals may be the same — generate awareness and tune-in, encourage engagement, and deliver on media highlights and reviews — no two film campaign strategies are exactly the same.

Over the last few years, I’ve seen a dramatic shift in how filmmakers share their stories and engage with potential audiences. But delivery and distribution aren’t the only changes happening within this industry. Newspaper pages are shrinking and some traditional media organizations have either disappeared, consolidated their publications to online only, or reduced their operations from daily to weekly publication as we’ve just seen with the consolidation of Daily Variety and Variety Weekend.

It’s been critical for me to understand the shifts within our industry and adjust campaigns accordingly to maximize awareness and generate best results on behalf of each project. Social and non-traditional media have become critical in the life of campaigns. Publicists today aren’t just focused on traditional reviews, but are also seeking partnerships and grassroots partners to help spread the message. These efforts can run the gambit from creating buzz in online communities that address the topic of the project to planning privately-hosted screenings with average film buffs to collaborating with organizations that share the vision or passion of the filmmaker.

And, a New Journey Begins

I’m thrilled that Script Magazine has asked me to write a regular column about film publicity and marketing. In the coming weeks, I’ll definitely be turning to you to find out what you’d like to read and the kinds of information that will help you share your stories better.  It promises to be an exhilarating journey and I’m excited to step out of my own comfort zone and learn along with you.

Our world is changing – new technologies and bold ideas are around every corner. This column will seek to address all that is happening. I will speak with filmmakers in all stages of their careers are share those conversations with you. We’ll find out what’s worked, what’s hasn’t worked, challenges, tips, advice, and more to help you on your journey. Ready? Let’s dig in and conquer it together! I know we’ll be able to accomplish and produce great things.

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