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Michelle Tennant Nicholson: “Treat everyone like a VIP”

We believe conversations change everything. The stories we consume consume us. Right now, our entire marketing industry is based on fear and stimulating the need to fix ourselves. It fuels our consumerism. We believe we can elevate this conversation and tell stories for the good of humankind. Imagine a world where people share positive stories […]


We believe conversations change everything. The stories we consume consume us. Right now, our entire marketing industry is based on fear and stimulating the need to fix ourselves. It fuels our consumerism. We believe we can elevate this conversation and tell stories for the good of humankind. Imagine a world where people share positive stories they’ve heard on the news cycle this morning. What if our stories stimulated our sense of security and safety? According to the latest brain science research, that contributes to optimal life experience. That’s why I get out of bed each morning. How about you?


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 Michelle Tennant Nicholson, an international publicist who also calls herself a “storyteller-to-the-media.” Michelle is the co-founder of Wasabi Publicity, Inc. They believe the way to change the world is to change what people are talking about and the quickest way to do that is to change what the media is talking about.

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?

Well, I’ve literally seen PR transition from typewriters to Twitter. Thirty years ago, I worked myself through undergraduate school as a publicist. I was getting my B.F.A. degree at the Goodman School of Drama at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. After my classes, I learned PR from a former WGN radio producer who worked from her Lake Shore Drive condo. In 1990 (before working at home was a thing), I plunked out cover letters from her living room coffee table and faxed newspaper editors from her bedroom. Her very large copier was housed inside her hall closet. It was something to behold for sure! Soon she put me on the phone and I’ll never forget the time a USA Today editor answered gruffly, “Well, you got me so pitch me!” Nervous and only 20 years old, I landed the story!

Once you learn how to do PR, you naturally bring PR to every project, job, and conversation. After all, a good story gets shared by almost everyone who hears it. I co-founded Wasabi Publicity in 2002 with Drew Gerber to share stories that make a difference. If your campaign isn’t about transforming our human existence for the better, we’re probably not a fit.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

While coordinating an afternoon “tea party” at the Waldorf Astoria in New York for the press to celebrate the 10-year anniversary for our former client, SOS Children’s Villages — USA, an international children’s non-profit working to keep large orphaned sibling groups together, I remember the Duchess of York saying to me, “Hold on, Michelle, I have to call the Queen.”

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?

In my PR firm’s early years, I was training the staff at the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, a nonprofit group uniting six states to preserve the Appalachian Mountains, to make press calls on their own. We dialed the local NPR station and when my trainee, Tony, was mid-sentence, he abruptly hung up the phone. I said, “What happened?” Tony replied, “I got nervous.” The teacher in me took over and I said, “Shake it off. He won’t remember. We’ll say you got disconnected and we’ll blame it on the phone company!” I learned you can blame any “bad connection” on technology. 😉

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

There have been so many interesting ones over the years. I met my business partner, Drew, at Landmark, the gold standard in personal and professional development courses according to CNN and Time. We now represent them! Their courses certainly impacted my business, marriage, and life satisfaction deeply. Drew and I use their course distinctions daily to grow our firm, Wasabi Publicity. (It’s our secret sauce!) We’re also dog people, so I just love representing Mission K9, a group that reunites combat veterans with their military dogs, and Mutual Rescue, a book and short films that celebrate how people and pets save each other. I’m so proud of their Doggy Day Out Toolkit and database for shelters country-wide. Then there’s saving the oldest church in Paris with American Friends for the Preservation of Saint Germain des Prés. You can even buy a star in the ceiling as a gift for a friend for the next 1500 years! My client Lisa Z. Lindahl invented the sports bra and her design (from a jockstrap!) is on display at the Smithsonian. You might like her book “Unleash the Girls.” Finally, we continue to support “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work,” a non-profit foundation inspiring parents to take children to work, share future job possibilities, and value education. It happens on the fourth Thursday in April every year. I could go on and on, but that gives you a glimpse into my campaigns.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Just like a good press release or pitch, be sure to cover the who, what, when, where, and why when building a PR career.

1) WHO 
 I wish I would’ve known since day one: I’m serving the press, not the client.

You might think you’re working for the client, but you’re really working for the press. Be of service. In earned editorial press, the journalist or producer is the one who has control over the story; that’s who!

2) WHAT

I wish I would have known the simple litmus test for good PR stories.

Ask “What is good for the public?” about this story. If you can’t answer that, there is no story.

3) WHEN

I wish I would have known to give print press two weeks to six months’ notice when possible.

You know how in real estate they say it’s all about “location, location, location”? Well, in PR it’s all about “timing, timing, timing.” You must have the right story with the right media at the right time. Print magazines need months of notice, while TV can act day-of. (Speaking of short-notice leads, I’m grateful to have all client assets on one link: SearchPressKits.com. One time I was whitewater kayaking and sent a press kit link to a journalist riverside. Online press kits are awesome time savers. There’s your pro tip of the day!) Knowing your press friend means knowing when they need information, day or night.

4) WHERE

I wish I would have known how important press considers locations.

Press venues are a business. If a client is local to them, it’s easier (and cheaper) to get them on camera or meet for an interview. While technology has certainly made it easier to connect, it’s still music to media’s ears when you say, “My client is in the same city and they can be in-studio any time.”

5) WHY

I wish I would have known why people choose to do PR in the first place.

Today, I teach clients right away the difference between earned, paid, and owned media. Many people seek PR to sell something. That’s not a good reason to do PR. For that, choose advertising. PR is for building credibility and brand recognition. The old saying holds true today: “Advertising is what you pay for; publicity is what you pray for.”

You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?

Treat everyone like a VIP.

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?

Are you talking about the “good leads from downtown”? (That’s a Glengarry Glen Ross joke. If you’re not familiar, check out this clip. Every publicist should watch or read Glengarry Glen Ross, by the way. It originally was a play.) To get those “downtown leads,” use media networking events like the National Publicity Summit, networking sites like PitchRate.com (a site I helped co-found), or ask your current contacts to hook you up with other journalists and producers. I have a Wall Street Journal media contact who connected me with her New York Times friend when I asked her. Press know press. Ask them for the “good leads.”

Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?

Yes, watch “The Century of Self.” I have a master’s degree in human development from Pacific Oaks College. In my master’s thesis, “The Art of Aha: How People Find Health, Wealth, and Love in the 21st Century,” I studied how people arrive at epiphanies on demand. In my research, I watched Adam Curtis’s four-part series “The Century of Self,” which covers the story of Sigmund Freud‘s American nephew Edward Bernays. It was Bernays who invented the public relations profession in the 1920s and was the first person to apply Freud’s ideas to manipulate the masses. I am fascinated by Bernays, how PR developed, and its connections to consumerism. I highly recommend the series.

Oh, and watch the movie “Wag the Dog.” It’s quite entertaining and a bit eye-opening on how PR can be used against the masses. I think it’s a movie to warn new publicists on why manipulation doesn’t work.

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. 🙂

We believe conversations change everything. The stories we consume consume us. Right now, our entire marketing industry is based on fear and stimulating the need to fix ourselves. It fuels our consumerism. At Wasabi Publicity, we believe we can elevate this conversation and tell stories for the good of humankind. Imagine a world where people share positive stories they’ve heard on the news cycle this morning. What if our stories stimulated our sense of security and safety? According to the latest brain science research, that contributes to optimal life experience. That’s why I get out of bed each morning. How about you?

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.

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