Last Sunday night, I watched the Primetime Emmys at home. First, I watched the pre-show on E! and then the telecast on ABC. But I’m not always so lucky—or unlucky—to get to watch an awards show in the comfort of my home.
Many times I’ve been standing in black-tie attire in the glaring heat or pouring rain on a crowded red carpet, fighting for space and time with journalists and/or celebrities with some kind of agenda—and with only minutes to complete my mission.
On TV, it always looks so glamorous. Yet, I can assure you that behind the scenes it is one of the most mentally and physically exhausting jobs in the publicity field. Everything must be strategically planned in advance, and even then there is no guarantee that things will go smoothly.
For an inside look at the military campaign known as the red carpet, I spoke with two veterans of the awards show circuit—Jennifer Musselman, former PR executive in charge of Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards for eight years, and Mark Rosch, who handled publicity for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Primetime Emmys for five years and was head of PR for E! Entertainment Television for four. Each helped build their network’s award-show campaigns from their infancies and grew these brands to the point that the Kids’ Choice Awards and E!’s red carpet coverage are now must-see events every awards season.
I started with a simple question: Does every celebrity automatically get interviewed or photographed on the red carpet?
The answer, of course, is no. Only A-listers are guaranteed coverage. But to avoid embarrassing moments when your talent walks up to a reporter who says, “No, thanks,” to their face, Musselman and Rosch both recommend that publicists hit the red carpet before the talent arrives to determine who’s interested.
“Most of the big names arrive closer to show time. Less-than-A-list celebrities can increase their odds of getting coverage if there’s nobody else for the press to talk to when they’re on the red carpet,” Rosch says. “The early bird does sometimes get the worm.”
If need be, lean on a few reporters to do you a favor; negotiate if you have to—you’ll give them a more popular celebrity if they make time for the talent you’re pitching.
“It’s an unspoken transaction on the carpet,” says Musselman.
“This is where relationships mean everything,” says Rosch, who recounts the time he had to walk a seven-foot-tall, costumed rooster (a dead ringer for Elvis) down Swifty Lazar’s Oscar party red carpet. “I definitely leaned on a few press friends to do me a favor, and it paid off in some local TV news coverage. Otherwise I would have been, excuse the expression, a dead duck.”
Of course, fashion is important, too, says Musselman. “Even virtually unknown talent can make a splash if they stand out with one unique fashion statement. But remember, it’s not always the wackiest. You don’t want to look desperate—unless you’re Madonna or Lady Gaga and it’s part of your ‘brand.’ ”
So how did Musselman and Rosch help make two cable specials, Nick’s Kids Choice Awards and E!’s Live Red Carpet Pre-Shows, into Hollywood staples? In those early days, each had the same host—Rosie O’Donnell for the former and Joan Rivers for the latter—for several consecutive years.
“For E!, I played to the celebrity aspect. We had something none of the other outlets had—a ‘real celebrity’ host,” says Rosch. “Of all the press on the red carpet, Joan was the only one who had hosted the Emmys before. In other words, I emphasized the fact that she was one of them,” stresses Rosch.
“I would partner Rosie’s hosting announcement with the telecast date, a new award or location announcement to make it more newsworthy,” adds Musselman. “You have to use a multi-layered strategy when building the buzz—it’s like throwing a wedding: You send out a ‘hold-the-date,’ an invitation, an RSVP, bridal shower and bachelorette party invites…. Ensuring coverage requires a multi-content, strategically disseminated approach.”
Both Rosch and Musselman agree that talent played a huge role in the success of their campaigns.
“As talent reps caught on to the show’s ‘Mall of America’ publicity appeal—meaning you could reach a targeted audience in one stop—more talent started signing up, and more press, big and small wanted to be there,” says Musselman. “Then, as media became more diversified, I was charged with squeezing as many media outlets on my line as possible, including finding new spots on the carpet and backstage to create an exclusive feel for some of the more important outlets.”
“Celebrities have a love-hate relationship with Joan,” says Rosch. “Everyone wants to be recognized by her but some are terrified by what she might ask them! You could absolutely guarantee, though, that viewers wanted to watch to see what would happen.”
And that’s the bottom line with any awards show—the results you get in terms of viewers and press. So what were Musselman and Rosch’s big “gets”?
“My highlights were the week-long Ellen DeGeneres show hits leading up to the KCA and then post-show coverage, too—and the two-page story in Newsweek magazine touting the Kids’ Choice Awards as better than the Oscars!,” says Musselman.
“When I was at E!, we got a number of big hits with Joan like TV Guide, but the covers of the local newspapers’ Sunday TV books were always my favorite,” says Rosch. “That coverage turns directly into viewers.”
Aside from talent, fashion, the media, and press coverage, here’s the real secret to surviving awards season:
“A good sense of humor—that’s your best weapon,” says Musselman.
Adds Rosch, “Yes, laughing at the craziness of it all is the best way to keep your sanity. Sometimes those laughs come during the event...and sometimes not until long after.”