Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Publicist or party planner? The 10th anniversary of "Welcome To The Dollhouse"

Lizzie Grubman -- publicist or party planner?

Lara Shriftman -- publicist or party planner?

Would you trust Howard Rubenstein to plan your son's bar mitzvah reception?


In the 10 years since New York magazine published their renowned story "Welcome To The Dollhouse" about the city's "power girl publicists," the line between publicists and party planners got as skinny as a Vogue magazine editorial assistant's waistline.

I know, I keep calling them party planners and they probably would cringe at calling them that. Yet, like them or not, Grubman and Shriftman are still around and have spawned all kinds of imitators in their wake, like Fingerprint Communications, where they market themselves as public relations firms... but are they really?

The term you hear with all these companies now is "branding agency," since they specialize in throwing events for big corporate clients, trying their best to wrangle talent who can walk the red carpet, inviting "tastemakers," opening the doors to tabloid photographers, and attempting to plant items in Page Six the next day. In my experience, there are always a lot of promises by these firms for celebrities attending their clients' events, but it is essentially a risky gamble in which they still get paid whether Blake Lively shows up, or it's an actress from a canceled Fox TV show from two years ago.

OK, I'll buy that description of "branding agency." But it all seems like a gussied-up version of party planning to me, with very little public relations involved.

I guess it all depends on your definition of public relations. If it's knowing to invite the Entertainment Tonight crew and photographer Patrick McMullan, and where to place them for the grip and grin, then I'd say there's a token amount of publicity skill involved. Knowing the right names to call in to Page Six and Rush & Molloy on the morning after the party qualifies as minimal junior-level PR skills.

Yet, there does not seem to be much strategy involved except to keeping exes and camera crews apart at the party. What's the end-game ambitious play? Does scoring an item in Page Six reap huge rewards? For most clients, having your logo on the wall behind the celebrity is a big score, and you pay these firms serious money to arrange it that way. Has there been enough "cool" delivered for clients to make this a successful return on investment?

A Grubman employee interviewed at my office once who explained why she was looking for a new gig. She was in her mid-20's, promised a health insurance plan for months which never materialized, and paid below a typical entry-level salary. She described the agency as a constant turnover whirlpool, and as soon as somebody left, another desperate-for-a-job-right-out-of-college attractive woman would replace her. As a business owner, this would seem like a rather cold-hearted but extremely profitable way to run a firm, but in reality, it was morally reprehensible as an employer and role model. The operation didn't offer much training, finessing, growth or longevity, just barely-paid bodies setting up events and moving glamorous celebrities along.

Last month, Shriftman and her partner Elizabeth Harrison published their latest book. Was it about public relations strategy, social media, how a woman can succeed in public relations, or crisis communications options?

The name of the book is "Party Confidential: New Etiquette For Fabulous Entertaining."

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