Never say no just because you’ve never done something before. PR is not curing cancer, you can figure out how to do almost anything. Things we’ve said “yes” to and figured it out later include creating a show pitch deck and marketing it to Netflix and others, booking concerts at malls and even the White House, making a celebrity love connection for a client and more.
As a part of my series about the things you need to know to excel in the modern PR industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wendy Guarisco, founder of Guarisco Group, LLC.
Wendy Guarisco has 30+ years of experience as a communications and marketing professional. She’s worked with Fortune 500 companies, one-man shops, and everything in between. And as the founder of her own media consulting firm, she knows first-hand the opportunities and challenges of small business ownership.
Wendy began her career in Atlanta with McCann-Erickson, then the world’s largest advertising agency, where she helped shape the images of such companies as Coca-Cola and Georgia Pacific. She was hired by her client Contel, then the third-largest non-Bell telephone company, and moved to Washington, DC as their Eastern Region Public Affairs Coordinator. She later spent a few years with a Northern Virginia broadcast production/direct response advertising company before moving back to Atlanta and joining CNN. She spent 12 years booking live interviews and contributing to the network’s award-winning coverage of events such as The Persian Gulf War, the OJ Simpson Trial, the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Balkan conflict, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, three presidential elections, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the 2000 Florida recount controversy, numerous international summits, and much more.
As a director of CNN’s Guest Booking unit, Wendy helped manage a staff of bookers in Atlanta, Washington, New York, London, and Hong Kong who were responsible for all of the network’s live interviews throughout the day. She was involved in the creation of some of CNN’s groundbreaking programs, including the Emmy Award-winning CNN & Company, Burden of Proof, and television’s first interactive talk show, TalkBack Live! She served as that show’s senior editorial producer for six years.
In 2001, Wendy launched the Guarisco Group, LLC. She and her team secure major national and international media coverage for clients around the world. Clients credit their enhanced media profile with generating greater and more positive awareness of them and their products/services, and with generating increased business for them.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I wish I could tell you that I had a grand master plan, but it’s been more serendipity than anything. I started out in advertising and loved it but after 10 years I was ready for a change. I took a job at a temp agency to test out some different professions, and they happened to send me to answer phones in CNN’s guest booking department for a week. Turned out the people there liked me and I liked them, so at the end of my assignment, they asked if I could fill in for one of the bookers who was going on maternity leave. I jumped at the chance and as it turned out, I was good at it! In the end, that booker didn’t come back so I got her job. I really loved my time at CNN, it was like having a front row seat to history and I will always be grateful to have worked alongside some of the greatest journalists in the world. But after twelve years, I had come to a season in my life, with a very young child and very old parents, that made having to be on call for breaking news around the clock harder and harder. When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had way too much on my plate and really the only thing I could take off was CNN. I left with no plan but faith that it would all work out, and it did. Since I had worked from home a few days a week after my daughter was born, a lot of my guests had my home number, and they began to call to see if I could help them get back on CNN. Then colleagues would leave CNN and start new ventures and ask for my help to get the word out. By the time the CNN checks stopped coming over a year later, I had the accidental beginnings of a business that has grown organically ever since. I still get to keep my hand in the news business, but I don’t have to rush into a newsroom with every breaking news story.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
One of my favorite parts of my job is that I get to make our clients dreams come true. And sometimes it happens in unexpected ways. One of our clients is an attorney in Los Angeles. He’s super successful and living a very glamorous life in Hollywood. When we got him booked on Entertainment Tonight to discuss Brad and Angelina’s divorce, I knew it was a good booking, but I wasn’t prepared for how meaningful it was to our client. He called me afterwards, his voice breaking with emotion. He told me that when he was a child and his family came to America from Chile, they lived in what he described as “a crappy apartment in Florida.” Every night, he and his brother would watch Entertainment Tonight and talk about one day living the American dream in Los Angeles. He said it hadn’t really hit him how far he had come until he was on the ET set being interviewed as an expert about a celebrity divorce. That was a good day!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the best lessons I learned early was to not only do your own job well, but do everyone else’s job, too. I had booked a small family band to perform at the White House Easter Egg Roll. It was quite a coup! We spent weeks preparing songs, sets and outfits and were so excited to be brought to Washington as guests of the President. When the day finally came and we were actually en route to the White House! We had a fancy new guitar that was on loan from a prestigious instrument maker, and the band member in charge of it accidentally left it in the cab. There we were at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, all dressed up and no instrument to play. After a series of panicked phone calls, I was able to track the cab down, the instrument was returned and the performance went off without a hitch. I learned that day to always check and double check every member of the team because it truly takes a village to make the magic happen.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Some of our most interesting work in the past year has been booking our clients to help the public navigate the pandemic. We represent a number of top tier medical professionals who have explained every twist and turn of the Covid-19 story. We’ve also secured placements for our business, financial and leadership experts to share insights on the market, PPP and stimulus programs and how to pivot. Our education expert who has shared valuable lessons on how to make your home a classroom, as well as mental health experts who share coping strategies. It has been rewarding know that our work helped people understand the unique challenges this virus has presented.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It takes guts to be a commentator in national media, and that’s something every publicist should keep in mind. Be their cheerleader. Prep and pump them up before a big appearance and be their safe place to land if things go south. I had a client who was beyond excited to make his debut on CNN. He was totally prepared to hit it out of the park! He got to the studio, got seated on the set and was seconds away from beginning the big interview… and then breaking news happened. Michael Jackson showed up to court in his bathrobe and CNN (and every other network) went immediately to live coverage, and my client’s spot was canceled. Talk about a letdown! But we helped him manage that day’s disappointment and celebrated with him when he was re-booked.
- Journalists take a risk every time they book someone new. Don’t take that for granted. Make sure your client is fully prepared for each interview and knows each journalist’s particular needs. Of course, you owe that to your client, but you also owe it to the journalist who trusted you enough to give your client a shot. Over the years there have been a number of scandals where a guest (not ours!) made air and later turned out to be a hoax so bookers are understandably hesitant to book an unknown.
- If you decide to open your own shop, you absolutely must have someone who knows how to run a business guiding you. I know a lot about media and PR but my business would have folded long ago without my COO Alex Muñoz’s careful shepherding. In one of our early conversations, Alex asked me what my pipeline looked like. My response: what’s a pipeline? We’ve gone on to create a robust pipeline together and Alex has also helped with hiring, processes, budgeting, taxes and more. He sees around corners when I don’t even know the corner exists.
- There’s an old saying that goes, “dig your well before you’re thirsty,” and this is such good advice for any publicist launching their own firm. You always have to be ready for it to start raining clients, and that means you need a solid team in place. I’ve had some amazing folks helping me over the years, but the squad we have in place now are the true rock stars!! Our managing director, Kelly Wolf George, makes the Energizer Bunny look like a slacker! She is always “on” and leads our “news of the day” team with phenomenal news judgment and consistency. Account Supervisor Gina McKenzie Hayes has an endless supply of imagination, curiosity and persistence, with a heavy dose of cheerfulness to top it off. LA Account Exec Bo Brannen may be the most creative, innovative person I know. Surrounding yourself with smart, hardworking, FUN people is a major key to success.
- Never say no just because you’ve never done something before. PR is not curing cancer, you can figure out how to do almost anything. Things we’ve said “yes” to and figured it out later include creating a show pitch deck and marketing it to Netflix and others, booking concerts at malls and even the White House, making a celebrity love connection for a client and more.
You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?
I think it’s really important to cultivate relationships, not just contacts. Seeing your business connections as real people with real lives outside of their day job is so much more meaningful than seeing them only in terms of what they can do for you.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
For us, the ideal client is someone who has done some media but wants more. Maybe they’ve gone as far as they can on their own or with their current publicist and they need us to come in as a rocket booster to get to the next level. With that in mind, I like to watch the smaller shows, or the really early-morning or late-night shows and look for the guest that could be doing more but may not know how to get to there.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I absolutely love Guy Raz’s How I Built This podcast. I learn so much about risk-taking, creativity and perseverance from the trailblazers he profiles. It’s fascinating to see how these innovators overcome some really incredible odds to find success.
Also, I am running out of wall space to post my favorite inspirational Neil Gaiman quotes. I admit that I don’t love his novels, but his advice to creatives is priceless. One of my all-time favorites is this: The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before. You have to develop a thick skin to work in this business because there’s a LOT of rejection, but when your pitch hits the target and you get the interview and it gets aired or published, that’s a high that makes all the rejection worth it.
Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I constantly encounter people who have been burned by a publicist or PR firm, and that makes it so hard for those of us who act with integrity. I wish I could inspire a movement among PR practitioners (and others) to treat clients the way you want to be treated, to do what you say you’ll do, and admit when you’re wrong. It’s just not that hard.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.