Bonus Q&A: PR Tips From Jake Basden, Ebie McFarland, Kristie Sloan, Jensen Sussman

For the 2017 Artist Roster print magazine, MusicRow exclusively sat down with public relations representatives behind artists including Taylor Swift, Florida Georgia Line, Kenny Chesney, George Strait, The Robertson Family, Ronnie Dunn, Eric Church, Jason Aldean, Bobby Bones, Dierks Bentley, Kelsea Ballerini and Dustin Lynch to discuss PR damage control in the modern age.

Jake Basden, VP Publicity & Corporate Communications, Big Machine Label Group; Ebie McFarland, Publicist/Owner, Essential Broadcast Media; Kristie Sloan, co-owner of the Greenroom and Jensen Sussman, Pres./Owner of Sweet Talk Publicity discuss their experiences with media in a world where clicks are driven with shock and awe, and consumers have devoured many celebrities after their missteps; think: Paula Deen or Kathy Griffin.

The full interview can be found in MusicRow’s latest Artist Roster Print magazine, available with a subscription. We exclusively discuss country music fan demographics—with identities being both Republicans and Democrats, LGBT and conservative Christian or even advocates for Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter. The print feature also discusses how each publicist’s personal reactions have been neutralized to navigate crisis situations.

What follows is a bonus Q&A, which features the publicist’s advice for operating their businesses in today’s environment. Read the exclusive print interview in MusicRow’s 2017 Artist Roster Print magazine, available with MusicRow subscriptions and individually at musicrow.com.

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MusicRow: How can a publicist get their voice heard when pitching for features?

Jake Basden: Rule one is: Know you’re audience. We’re really in the business of telling stories. MusicRow may be perfect for certain things that no one over at People magazine ever may need to see. You have to understand the goal and who you are trying to reach, because a lot of times trying to reach everyone will get you no one.

Kristie Sloan: I love a “No.” Then I can tell you why that “No” doesn’t work. [laughs]. I crave information and if we can figure out why a certain pitch didn’t work, we can try something else. If it’s not a fit, then it’s not a fit—I’m not going to force anything. But if I believe so strongly it is a fit, I want to have a dialogue about it.

Ebie McFarland: There are certain times we will go to our core Nashville journalists, ones who have been championing the format for a long time, to soundboard some stories and say, “Help me find the timeliness here.” A lot of time we’ll postpone a story 8-10 months because it may need told when a single is peaking, not when a single is going for adds—or one of 50 reasons. I think that is why we are so fortunate as a format to have so many people that actually care about these artists in real ways.

Jensen Sussman: Email still doesn’t replace a phone call. PR is so much about relationships and trying to tell those stories. When you can have a dialogue on the phone or in person, you can really go in-depth about that story. I always encourage my team, if you’re not hearing back, you need to get on the phone or take them to coffee. Because a lot of those emails could be deleted if you picked up the phone to have one conversation.

MR: With your rosters, do you get one-on-one attention for national media too?

Basden: It’s so competitive. There’s one music booker at Fallon. There’s tons of publicists trying to reach her. You have to be selfless, thinking of it that way and remembering that part. [Most people at BMLG] are talking about competing against the other 50 people on the country chart. But that booker is looking at every genre…

Sussman: …every single chart, and actors and others non-music related. We were just looking at what we’re all fighting for, pitching for and up against with magazines in print. There’s how many major books? There’s 12 covers a year and six are Hollywood actresses.

MR: Say you’ve secured one of those high-profile features, do you ever then turn and have to sell that opportunity to your client or take responsibility for a potential misstep during the interview?

Sussman: I always say, we present opportunities putting together the strongest campaigns we can and presenting as many opportunities we think are good fits for our clients. That’s our job. But there is an entire team and so many other factors. But we focus on working the hardest in our area—doing the best we can.

McFarland: I would add to that, explaining why it’s a good opportunity [to] team members that perhaps haven’t had a story in the Wall Street Journal, Kickstarter campaign or a New York Times magazine piece. Those set the tone for an album. When you’re trying to emphasize the importance of those outlets, explain why the [placement] can help now and why we recommend it is helpful. Because that’s ultimately why we’re getting paid, is for our expertise.

MR: How might national, or international media operate differently than we do in Nashville?

Basden: One way it gets challenging is TV. We get so used to CMT correspondents and artists go out of town to an awards show in Vegas or LA or New York and they go to the carpet and can’t understand why a producer may not know their album came out, or the name of their current single. Artists may not realize the correspondent has just been hired for that day and just has a list of people they need to interview. Whereas someone in [Nashville] who stays up on that information day to day would know that. So you will get feedback from artists in that regard. Even the bookers. Sometimes you’ll have conversations, because we’re consuming MusicRow magazine or Country Aircheck and everything all day [in Nashville], they may not be. That’s a good reminder to keep feeding them with information…

McFarland: …and contextualizing it. When you’re dealing with people that don’t live and breathe the format, it’s important to show in layman’s terms how it’s relevant to them without it becoming a stats or sales story. You have to evoke emotion from the segment, and that has to start with the pitch. If that doesn’t happen, it is very unlikely that it will become a moving piece. That’s a very delicate process, and something you work years to hone in able to be able to craft pitches so they don’t isolate your artist as one particular thing in their mind. Because a lot of times, you’re growing that relationship with that person for the first time, especially with international.

MR: So is that the challenge of publicists, to translate sales stats to compelling stories?

Basden: It is important not to get caught up in stats, like Ebie said. Every day from the label there are new stats. There’s a new No. 1 every week and you can’t go in expecting these people in these other markets to follow the charts like we do. And quite frankly, sales stats are not always a story. They may show momentum, but being No. 1 is not the story. Unless it’s historic.

Sussman: On a human-interest level, what fans and media producers connect with is that story the artist is telling. It seems like a big sales story, but what’s going to connect with them, and for us to get that segment or placement is the story of what that particular artist has gone through or is telling with their music. That is what is going to let us bring that spotlight on them, and that’s how you fall in love with music is because it speaks to you, and what you’re going through. That’s why we’re all in this and why we want to tell those story.

McFarland: Think of discovering music as a child. If you heard a song you liked, the first thing you’d do is read the back of the vinyl or booklet. Think of the way people consume music today. A lot of times they’re Shazaming it or Googling it. We want to create the content so when people hear the music, they are able to go down the rabbit hole and fall more in love and connect more with the artist and their story. Back in the day it would have been you wanted your bio to tell everything with the hopes of starting the conversation.

MR: Jake, from a label perspective, do you ever suggest artists hire an independent publicist from outside of Nashville?

Basden: I get so mad if one of our artists sign with someone outside Nashville because they think that whatever reason they’re in L.A. that they may bring something more to the table. Most times it doesn’t end up working out that way.

Sussman: [laughs]

Basden: So if you’re going to hire an indie in country, that person needs to be on the ground in Nashville. Nashville publicists do a good job looking at the whole picture—digital and print. A lot of times these bigger firms are really doing nothing but booking television for people all the time. We talked a lot about country today, but I think people in other facets of entertainment are crazy for not engaging more with Nashville publicists. Any of these [publicists here today] could do a better job than someone who happens to be on the ground in New York or L.A. I really believe that.

McFarland: We all pay Jake. He’s our publicist. [Laughs]

Do ever feel a sense of competition between each other, not only competing for clients but features and spots?

Sussman: It’s funny, Kristie and I just had drinks the other night. We have such a community [in Nashville] that I don’t ever feel competitive. There’s so much music, so many great artists and all of us are doing such great work. I have so much respect for everyone in the room that if there was a crisis situation and needed to bounce ideas, I really feel like I could call anyone.

Sloan: If anything it’s a healthy competition. Because if someone lands a cover, we all know how hard that is. Or you get SNL. That’s huge!

Basden: Exactly. And you’re opening the door for the rest of [Nashville].

McFarland: But to Jake’s earlier point about New York or L.A., if the growth of Nashville helps to overcome some of the stereotypes about businesses based in Nashville being somehow at a disadvantage geographically, then I’m all for the growth.

Maybe that collaborative nature comes from feeling like in order for somebody in Nashville to win, somebody else in Nashville doesn’t have to lose.

Basden: Except maybe during the CMA Awards.

All: [laughs]

Pick up MusicRow’s latest Artist Roster Print magazine, exclusively discussing what it feels like when the pressure is on during a crisis situation, available with a subscription.

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Eric T. Parker oversees operations and contributes editorial for MusicRow's print magazine, MusicRow.com, the RowFax tip sheet and the MusicRow CountryBreakout chart. He also facilitates annual events for the enterprise, including MusicRow Awards, CountryBreakout Awards and the Rising Women on the Row. [email protected] | @EricTParker

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