Public Relations Influencers
Mitch Leff and Melissa Sanders, co-founders of the Georgia Entertainment Public Relations Alliance (GEPRA), shared with us their words of wisdom when it comes to working in Public Relations. Leff and Sanders, coming from independent PR firms, have combined their expertise to create a diverse team of PR professionals to better serve clients with all types of needs. Their careers are driven by their main inspiration: following their passions and integrating what they love into their work.
What made you want to work in PR?
My journey to a career in public relations took a circuitous route. My undergraduate degree was in finance, which might have sent me to a career in banking or financial services. But I’d spent several years in college running all sorts of on-campus activities, from concerts and dances to travel excursions and film screenings. All of that came with all the accompanying marketing and PR.
My first job was as an account coordinator at Cohn & Wolfe Public Relations, then the largest public relations agency in the Southeast. I worked on a range of accounts in sports (Goodwill Games, Olympic Games, several Super Bowls), technology, healthcare, and consumer products. The sheer variety of clients got me hooked and here I am more than 30 years later!
I grew a strong expertise in writing and media relations and in a few years I was the agency’s Media Relations Supervisor, working on clients around the country.
As a musician and athlete, my two passions were always music and sports. But I was also a good writer and found I had a flair for it when I was in high school. I must admit, when I settled on studying journalism in college I wasn’t focused on public relations, but advertising — I didn’t really know what PR was at the time. I ended up in the PR sequence at The Ohio State University as a backup when the Journalism school reorganized. Fortunately, I quickly realized I was in the right major.
While at OSU I also joined the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), hoping it would bring me some clarity of where I should focus my career. After a meeting one evening, I went to look at the internship bulletin board and I saw a pink flier for BalletMet, who was looking for a PR intern and it all clicked for me. I realized I could do what I loved for something I was so passionate about — I got that internship and enjoyed every moment. I also interned with a PR agency (which I was not fond of because the clients were not inspiring for me), and then finally interned with my PRSA mentor at the opera. That’s when I knew I was in the right place and wanted to work in the performing arts. I only applied for performing arts jobs, and after MUCH persistence and MANY interviews all over the country, I was offered a dream job with the New York Philharmonic. The rest, as they say, is history.
Who did you work with before you started your company, and what did you learn that you carry on today?
I worked for Cohn & Wolfe public relations, then Edelman PR, and GCI Group. In 1999, I was lured away from agency work to a position as Director of Public Relations for Turner Learning, the educational division of Turner Broadcasting Systems. There I managed PR for programs across many Turner properties, including CNN, Turner South, Cartoon Network, TNT, the Atlanta Thrashers, and Turner Classic Movies.
The agency work taught me how to manage client accounts and teams. Every manager I worked with taught me something: persuasive writing, creative event production, and the vital importance of attention to detail. One of the most important lessons was the power of creating and nurturing strong and lasting relationships with journalists.
I started my career on the public relations team of the internationally-acclaimed New York Philharmonic (New York City, NY) handling PR for concerts, international tours, a record label, television broadcasts, and more. After moving up the ladder there during my 11 years, I moved to Atlanta to broaden my music scope and head up PR for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, as well its Youth Orchestra and Chorus. This included concerts, a record label, Carnegie Hall performances, Chastain concerts, and the opening of the Ameris Bank Amphitheatre (formerly Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre). After 7 years there, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to work with another venue and even more diverse music at The Green Music Center (Sonoma County — yes, wine country. It was divine if you must know!). I oversaw communications, marketing, and promotions spanning genres of classical to country and jazz to rock across three venues including Weill Hall, Weill Hall and Lawn, and Schroeder Hall (which we opened while I was there).
When I left that last role we moved back to Atlanta so I could launch Tadpole Communications to truly expand to all sectors of entertainment PR. And truly, there really isn’t another city in this country where music, film/tv, and gaming/esports are all thriving at the same time in the same place. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be temporary (until I found a “real job”), or long-term. Seven years later, here I am. I have learned so much from these experiences and the people I worked with, but what stands out is what has always been at my core: do what you love, do it for something you are passionate about, and always maintain your integrity. By following this my entire career, I am able to always offer my best because I truly love what I do and love those I work with — I think this shows in both the relationships with my clients and in the results we produce, whether it’s an esports event, a new album, or a venue opening.
Besides your own companies, which PR firm do you admire today and why?
CarenWestPR (www.carenwestpr.com) has built an impressive roster of lifestyle clients around the country and always impresses me with their creativity and results. Melissa Libby & Associates (www.thinkmla.com) is the agency I think of first for restaurant PR. Through ups and downs in a challenging industry over the last years, they’ve remained successful. PRecise Communications (www.precisecomm.net) is another agency I admire. They are well-known for excellent services focused on multicultural communications.
Leff & Associates for sure! Honestly, I greatly admire Mitch and what he has built. I also really admire all of the independent consultants and small PR Agencies who do not have the infrastructure or financial backing of the bigger, more traditional PR agencies. Those are the agencies in it for the client and are fortunate to also make a living doing what they do, and doing it well. These folks may not win all the awards or get listed in all the “best of” lists, but you will always hear about them and the stellar work they do making a difference and impacting their clients in massive ways.
Talk about how you both ended up working together on some of your projects:
Melissa and I have known each other for many years, but we really hit our stride together in 2015. We created the Georgia Entertainment PR Alliance together, and began partnering on other clients including Georgia STAND-UP, PC&E, Esports Week, and many other projects.
Why do we sync so well? I find Melissa to be a top notch PR strategist, an excellent writer, and cursed with the same attention to detail that I need in a partner!
When I moved to Atlanta (the first time) in 2008, I was introduced to Mitch through a colleague, so we’ve known each other now for many years. But when I moved back here from California in 2015 (the second time) and launched Tadpole, we connected in a different way as colleagues and friends. When Mitch shared his brilliant idea of creating what is now the Georgia Entertainment PR Alliance (GEPRA.net), it was a game changer. GEPRA is a collective brain, if you will, of about a dozen independent counselors or small agencies who collaborate to serve the entertainment industry not just in Georgia, but all over the country and world, from music and tv, to film and esports. This is where our partnership really grew into how we are working together with each other and our other PR colleagues today. We are very like-minded and carry the same integrity for our work, but also have a lot of fun.
Talk about the difference between PR and Advertising:
MELISSA & MITCH:
In simple terms, PR is earned media and advertising is paid media, but the reality is that public relations encompasses so much more than working with members of the press to tell a story. We always say public relations helps to create and sustain an environment in which our client/company/brand can achieve its goals most effectively. We do that in a number of tactical ways, but there is always a strategy built around that concept.
How do you choose angles for a story pitch?
Some story pitches write themselves. A company introducing an innovative new product or service has very specific points that are very clear. But for some clients we’re creating more of an overall brand campaign, so the pitches become a bit more subtle, focusing on delivering “key messages” we’ve created for the client.
But some of our great success comes from proactively identifying story opportunities and connecting journalists with “subject matter experts.” One day that’s setting up an interview for a business professor for a story on inflation. The next day it’s an interview with a magazine with a studio CEO talking about the importance of Georgia’s film industry tax credit!
It depends. Sometimes a great story is just staring you in the face; sometimes you have to dig to uncover one. But talking to people is absolutely necessary for a good story. Then I ensure it will help my client’s objective to tell this story, and be sure it’s engaging and appropriate for the outlet and journalist I’m approaching. Relationships are everything. Solid, genuine stories help. Never be afraid to pitch — the worst that can happen is they tell you “no thanks.”
Talk about the process of creating a media placement:
MITCH & MELISSA:
We start by identifying an angle we think will appeal to a journalist and their media outlet. The next step is to create a very short “pitch,” a way to offer the reporter the key points of the potential story as briefly as possible. We deliver that by email, text, social media DM, or in some cases even by an old-fashioned phone call!
When the reporter lets us know they want to do the story, we prepare our client for the interview (often with a little mock interview practice), and set up the interview in person, by zoom, or by phone. Often we’ll help provide photos or video to be used in the article, or facilitate the media outlet shooting their own.
What media placements are you most proud of to date?
I’m still proud of my first media placement from the San Diego Union Tribune in 1989! It was for an exhibition of Russian art sponsored by the city. In 1999, I placed a story in USA Today around an educational outreach for a new production of A Christmas Carol on TNT starring Patrick Stewart. And finally a story on the CBS Evening News with one of our business professors from the Goizueta Business School about the “great resignation.”
There are a few, but one that stands out for me was The Late Show with David Letterman (when he was still there). I have always loved brainstorming and coming up with new ideas, and anyone who knows me knows I'll lasso the moon if you let me! In my first years at my first job, I had actually met a producer at The Late Show and kept pitching her the idea of having the New York Philharmonic play on the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater. This went on for nearly two years and no one thought I would ever make it happen. When we named a new music director for the Orchestra, I reached out again to see if this new angle would make a difference. A few weeks later she called me and said: “Melissa, you’ll never believe it. It’s finally going to happen. They want the Orchestra to play on the roof!” I nearly fell out of my chair. It was insane pulling it all together, but it happened and it was an amazing experience. Creative persistence paid off.
How do you present the results of your work?
MITCH & MELISSA:
We like to do monthly summaries so clients can see what we accomplish month to month, and we often do wrap-up reports at the end of a project (sort of like a case study) where we’ll summarize the number of placements and the size of the audiences reached. We do share media results (and related data), but often what we are tasked with is measured in ways beyond media coverage, so we prefer to look at our successful work more comprehensively.
Since social media came into the picture, was it a game changer? How do you integrate it with PR?
MITCH & MELISSA:
The addition of social media elements isn’t a game changer, but rather a “game enhancer.” Earned media strategies continue to be a key tactic for most of our clients. We tend to view social media as a strategy in our PR plans and we collaborate with both the marketing and social teams (if the client has them) to ensure we are collectively going after the same goal and maximizing our efforts together. Social has definitely been a catalyst for a shift in how we approach PR, but the digital ecosystem as a whole has been the real game changer.
What was your most creative and effective campaign?
As the COVID pandemic struck in March 2020, our client at the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia was literally in the middle of its largest annual event, a CareerExpo at the Georgia World Congress Center where 5000 students were learning about career opportunities in construction and skilled trades. As schools nationwide began announcing shutdowns to begin March 16, the event was canceled after the first day.
In an effort to keep their audiences engaged, we decided that Facebook offered the best way to reach students, parents, teachers, and partners. We worked with the client to develop key messages, a schedule of guests for the year, and overall content strategy. Some months were entirely themed, some episodes connected to events such as “National Women in Construction Week,” etc. To host the series, we engaged Kayleen McCabe, a nationally renowned DIY TV host, contractor, and speaker, and titled the series “Lunch with Kayleen McCabe.”
About a year after launching my agency, I was approached about a gaming festival coming to Atlanta for the first time. I’m not a gamer, mind you (do Candy Crush and Among Us count?), but I was thrilled to branch into another sector of the entertainment industry; and since they wanted an agency who specialized in entertainment PR, it was a great fit. A GEPRA colleague and I met with them and were ultimately hired to handle the PR to launch the event. That “event” turned out to be the Stockholm-based gaming festival, DreamHack (which is part of ESL Gaming, the world's largest esports and gaming lifestyle company). DreamHack had only been in one other U.S. city prior to that: Austin. We only had about six weeks to introduce, plan, promote, and launch a global gaming festival in Atlanta that encompassed everything gaming under one roof during a three-day, 24-hours-a-day event with 30,000 attendees — from professional and amateur esports, to a cosplay championship and music concert, to panels, screenings, an expo and more. I was officially indoctrinated into the gaming world with that event!
It was exciting, stressful, and incredibly satisfying. And, don’t mind if I do say so myself, we rocked it. I have since been fortunate enough to also launch and oversee the U.S. PR for DreamHack events in Denver, Anaheim, and Dallas, while also continuing festivals here in Atlanta, along with other ESL initiatives and projects. Esports is the fastest-growing sport in the world, so it’s amazing to have gaming companies on my roster among the music, tv/film, and non-profit clients. Covid certainly hit that industry hard (much like music and film/tv), shuttering events and forcing competitions online. This year, we will finally see a return to in-person events and I can’t wait to be a part bringing those back!
Have you ever had to manage negative media attention? Or how would you handle a PR crisis?
MITCH & MELISSA:
Absolutely. Issues management is a regular PR task that often goes overlooked; this is when we look to see if volatile situations and news trends could be connected to the client or company, and then prepare to respond if it does. Dealing with an actual crisis is a different beast — one we have each had to tame more than once. Sometimes we may have a lot of time to prepare for something you know will become a crisis (such as a pending labor strike), and sometimes they come out of nowhere (such as as a shooting). Regardless, we tend to approach them all from a place of honesty and integrity, and counsel clients to do the same. We hate the “spin doctors” out there who give the rest of us a bad name. Probably all of our colleagues agree with telling the truth and being honest. If you’re hiding something or lying, believe us — it will all come out eventually.
What is the best part of being a PR professional. And what is the part that makes you drink?
The best part is working with multiple clients on any given day. That’s also sometimes the part that makes me drink, when multiple clients have news to release the same week!
The best part for me is just being in a field I’m passionate about. I truly love what I do and get to meet some of the most tremendous people, tell amazing stories, and see amazing events come to life. Sometimes that calls for a celebratory drink all on its own. But this can also be a super stressful field … to enjoy a glass of my favorite wine is often a nice close to a day like that.
If someone came up to you and asked, “how do I get into PR,” what would your recommendation/s be?
Find an industry that you’re passionate about and start there. That might be sports marketing, food, fashion, technology, or entertainment. Many agencies specialize in these industries. Look for internships during your college years.
I think public relations is more about the kind of person you are. We PR people are natural storytellers, and we find stories in the most unusual places and at the most unusual times (and we love it); we are networkers who love running into our colleagues, journalist friends, and clients no matter the place or time; we love making connections among others so when the tide rises, we can all rise with it; we are strong writers and editors; and we are always “on” — whether it’s a 4am idea or a 5pm revelation. I truly believe you either have it in you to do this or you don’t. If you do, believe me, you’ll know. So take that skill, apply it to a field you are passionate about, and go lasso the moon.