PR legend Alison Brod on how she came to conquer an ever-changing industry

When PR guru Alison Brod was 25, she stepped into an elevator and her life instantly changed. 

I eavesdropped and heard a man talking about launching a new fragrance,” said Brod, who had a few years of fashion, magazine and restaurant PR experience in New York City. “We talked, and two weeks later he said, ‘If you want to start your own business, I’ll be your first client.’”

The gentleman in the elevator was looking to relaunch Burberry fragrances. “[Super model] Kate Moss was hired to freshen it up, and it was the first designer brand to really be re-invented,” said Brod. “It was a tidal turn for the industry, as well as for me.”

 Brod, a Tulane University alumni who grew up in New York, Miami, Charlotte, FL, and Boca Raton, FL, started her eponymous agency, Alison Brod Public Relations, in 1996 with Burberry, Escada, and Van Cleef & Arpels fragrances as her first clients.

These days, 24 years later, her 64-person office — which she renamed Alison Brod Marketing + Communications a few years ago — represents L’Oreal, Lancome, Old Navy, Richard Branson’s Virgin Voyages, Burger King, Reese Witherspoon’s clothing brand Draper James, Urban Decay, Venus et Fleur, Lilly Pulitzer, Ryan Reynolds’ gin brand Aviation, Popeye’s — and many other bands. 

In addition to successfully generating 10 billion media impressions for the sole promotion for one client’s product — a Popeyes chicken sandwich — Brod’s company was recently named the No. 3 most influential firm on The Observer’s 2019 PR Power List

Read on for Brod’s insight on a variety of topics including how the media landscape has shifted in recent years, what she looks for when hiring rockstar employees and what brands should consider when working with a communications, public relations or marketing firm.

On how she got her start

“The summer before I graduated college, I interned at an ad agency working on the Revlon and Victoria’s Secret. My uncle created Victoria’s Secret beauty and Bath & Body Works, as well as Ralph Lauren fragrances – so I had a lucky break and a big role model.”

 On why she chose NYC after graduation

“I decided was coming to New York — no matter what. I  gave myself a 30-day round-trip ticket to find a job, an apartment, and a roommate or I was moving back home to Boca Raton.” 

 On why it was imperative to change her company’s name, and what her firm actually does

“Two reasons. One: the business really changed. For us, it was for the better because suddenly with the onset of the internet, brands didn’t know how to best spend their money, so the RFPs (request for proposals) widened – they didn’t care what type of agency they hired, they just cared and now care about the big ideas so that led us to more development work. Also, with so many start-ups with extremely lean teams popping up, we have more business than ever that requires us to really act as extensions of these companies 

Second: we found that brands would come to us with a product, but the messaging wasn’t designed to actually sell the product. They had the base idea but didn’t know how to tweak it or explain it. We started doing that work for them before we even launched the product at hand.

 We have always worked with brands on influencer marketing, product development, consumer and sales activations, focus groups and messaging. It was just time to make sure everyone knew the skill set and ‘PR’ tends to have a very narrow connotation. We actually changed our name from ABPR to ABMC (marketing + communication) so we could get credit for all the work we do.

We spend more time than ever helping brands create effective ways to tell their story — before we even go to the media or influencers with the concept.”

 On how media relations has changed in the past few years

“One relevant thing that stands out, now, is that it only takes one disgruntled person to bring a company to its knees. We do more crisis PR than ever before and more planning to prevent these crises than we have ever done. 

 Awareness is important. People need to keep seeing things in order to investigate them – a mixture of PR, influencer marketing and experiential. We are also big believers in old school grassroots – going to the ‘it’ girls in communities for example, whose ‘friends’ love them and buy what they say.”

On the problem with social media

“My biggest issue in the industry is and has been the fake followers and engagement. When you can buy 10,000 followers for the price of a coffee, you know there is a problem. We really study and try to find people not based on the amount of followers, but on how they engage.”

On being selective when choosing clients

“There is such a limited amount of space for placement now, so we have to take clients that push through – we won’t take a new cosmetic brand just because it exists. We get a lot of inquiries for brands who think they should get press just because they are ‘clean,’ or because they have a founder that did something impressive in their last endeavor. In this world, today, everyone’s mother tells them they are perfect.

We get about 20 new business inquiries a week. We want [clients] who are open to new ideas because without sometimes doing something different, a brand cannot get traction.

About 50% of the companies that call us for representation are brands that see success in a category and want to do something similar. They are able to raise money based on the hotness of the category or prestige of founders or their boards, but often lack creativity or a real reason why they should exist. We weed through a lot of these but the people that listen to our feedback on how to create a point of difference, are who we take and our ideal clients.”

 On her dream client

“Richard Branson was my dream client. Launching his new exciting luxury adults-only cruise line, with a surprise around every corner for the sailor is the dream project.”

 On the Popeyes campaign success

“Popeyes is special to me and not just because their chicken sandwich truly is a food of the gods. It is from New Orleans, where I went to school and spend a lot of my time. I have been eating Popeyes since I was 17 years old when the rest of the country had never heard of it. 

Part of the fun of the QSR (quick service restaurant) business is competition with other restaurants. They allow us to be incredibly creative and they are truly collaborative. 

 We worked in collaboration with creative agencies for this brand through Twitter, media, influencers. Then, we had a comeback campaign that aimed itself directly to Chick-fil-A, launching on Sunday, a day that Chick is closed due to religious beliefs.”

 On what she looks for in a rockstar publicist  

“I look for resourcefulness, natural curiosity, and awareness in a candidate. Don’t tell me you are a people person, just show me.

 We even give an Instagram test. We ask candidates to create demo posts based on a favorite product. We want to see if they understand how to grab someone’s attention with visual and written content.”

On the biggest misconceptions about public relations

“There are a lot of misconceptions. We don’t just plan parties every day. 

Just because you like to buy makeup doesn’t mean that you will be a good beauty publicist. You need to be a writer, editor, public speaker, networker, analyst, strategist, and trend reporter. You must be able to effectively communicate, which can mean write a compelling pitch or actually pick up the phone and talk to someone, which is a skill fewer graduates seem to have these days if I am being honest.” 

On life lessons

“My favorite quote is: ‘The way to get what you want, is to get others what they want.’ Especially in public relations, learning this quickly makes a lot of sense. But it isn’t just a work lesson, it is a life lesson. Get ahead of the game so you can call in favors when you need them.”

On what she’d be doing if it weren’t for PR or Marketing

“I am not a person who wakes up with a brand new product idea every morning. My skill is in editing others’ ideas and improving them and designing the marketing strategy. I also truly love the power of the media and find it an exciting world and couldn’t be happier that my life took the path that it did.”