It has been more than 15 years (!!!) since I was a full-time book publicist (being a publicist is only part of what I do now as a freelance communications pro), and worked with the #OGBossBabe herself, Rachael Ray. I occasionally look back on that time and think about how today's media landscape is different, and ask myself, 'Would I do the same things today that I did then to create and execute a publicity plan?' Yes, and no. Social media, of course, has changed everything, and one's strategy should adjust accordingly. Now, 9 times out of 10, you'd need a sizable social media following to even secure a book deal in the first place, much less land your own television cooking show, if all other elements were left in place.
Love her or hate her, Rachael made a huge impact in the food and media worlds by making cooking even more accessible to millions. No, she's not a trained chef, but neither are most people - you don't have to be to make good food. And it's that confidence that she gives people, along with a level of authenticity, accessibility, reliability and likeability that has made Rachael what she is today - an undeniable, through-the-roof success.
I worked with Rachael in 2000-01 on two of her cookbooks (Comfort Foods and Veggie Meals) for Lake Isle Press, her publisher at the time, and created a publicity plan that landed her her first national television appearance on NBC's "Today" show, and shortly thereafter, her first national television show on the Food Network. Below is an article that first appeared on Mediabistro.com (who I later worked with as their freelance Morning Newsfeed Editor) that outlines how it all came together.
Hey, How'd Your PR Plan Introduce Rachael Ray to the Food Network?
This former publicist describes how she ushered the popular chef to TV stardom
By Jennifer Pullinger/ Rebecca L. Fox – August 9, 2007
While she may make near-hourly appearances on the Food Network these days, there was once a point when the nascent network aiming to reach home cooks didn't have the ebullient E.V.O.O. slinger-cum-magazine editor on their radar. Back in 2001, then-publicist Jennifer Pullinger was charged with getting Ray TV and radio appearances to promote the cookbook she'd just released. With an aggressively strategic approach and lots of videotapes, Pullinger scored Ray a coveted Today Show segment and a meeting with a Food Network programming exec. She tells us just how she did it, and shares her key tips for crafting publicity campaigns to catapult promising unknowns to stardom.
In 2001, as a publicist at National Book Network, you were assigned to work on two early Rachael Ray cookbooks, Comfort Foods: Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Meals and Veggie Meals: Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Meals. How much publicity work had you done prior to that assignment? Did these books/Rachael Ray represent any special opportunity for you?
At that time, I was new to book publicity. Before I was hired to be a book publicist at National Book Network (NBN), my professional experience in the media consisted of working as a volunteer media and marketing director for a small film festival in Orlando, and as a radio news reporter at WINA-AM in Charlottesville. Both, however, prepared me for the fast pace of book publicity. The "foodie" craze then wasn't what it is now, but it was gaining popularity.
I had been with NBN for less than six months when I was assigned to work on Lake Isle Press' Comfort Foods and Veggie Meals. Since the publication date for Veggie Meals was pushed back, I was primarily publicizing Comfort Foods.
To start off, NBN's publicity director and I met with Rachael and her publisher in New York City (we were based in Lanham, MD) to discuss the publicity plan. I think everyone in the room, including the NBN sales rep who attended the meeting, knew that Rachael had the innate talent and personality for TV, so it was a great opportunity for me to develop a publicity plan that had lots of potential.
Describe the publicity plan you crafted for Rachael and the two books she was releasing at this time. What kind of resources did you get from Lake Isle Press to do this?
The publicity plan involved equal parts strategy, a talented, charismatic author, and luck. The publicity plan was about being in the right place at the right time, and hitting the right synergistic notes. I like Woody Allen's quote: "80 percent of success is showing up," and I think that applies here. It wasn't quite that simple, but the plan was successful in part because I got the information about who Rachael was into the hands of the right people. Rachael took it from there by just by being herself.
The cookbook itself was the kind that wouldn't daunt your average cook. That's part of the reason why people like Rachael — her style of cooking is fairly easy and doesn't intimidate. My pitch focused on Rachael's personality and likeability, and how compelling she was on camera and in person.
My assignment was to secure Rachael radio and television interviews and appearances—no print. I also set up some book signings for her in upstate New York, where she was from, because they loved her there. At the time, she was a local television personality with WRGB-TV in Albany where she hosted a weekly cooking segment. So she was known regionally. I was given roughly 25 to 30 video cassettes as a demo to send to television producers. I sent about 20 of them to the Food Network. I just blanketed the place as much as I could, and started with follow-up. I sent them to shows that I thought would be open to a guest host or guest cooking segment. I also sent the tapes to the three major network morning shows, among others. For radio, I used the contacts that Rachael provided me, and also researched other topical radio shows that I thought might be interested in having a cookbook author on to talk about such.
What exactly did it take to land Rachael an NBC appearance? Walk us through the back-and-forth between you and the network, as our understanding is that nabbing a publicity opportunity like this is no small feat.
As any good book publicist does, they send their titles to the book producers at the major morning news outlets — The Today Show,Good Morning America, and The Early Show. I did that, but the book producer at The Today Show turned Comfort Foods down at first. She must have passed it on to a colleague, because shortly thereafter, a special projects producer from the show called me to see if Rachael was available to do a cooking segment. It was winter, so it was the right time for Comfort Foods. It's just the kind of stuff people crave when it's cold outside. I don't mean to make it sound that simple, but the back-and-forth kind of was. Because it wasn't that long before the book producer passed and the special projects producer called me to book her, at that point it was just a matter of nailing down the date and time, and then Rachael getting to the Today Show studios. Seeing Rachael on tape was likely what cinched it for the producer, as well as the timeliness of the release of Comfort Foods. Any time you have good video that shows how well your author presents themselves, make sure to include that in the press materials you send out.
At the time, how did you and Rachael think her first TV appearance went? Did it seem to either of you that she had great TV potential? Why?
Within days of her Today Show appearance, Comfort Foods shot to the top five in Amazon.com sales, so I think it went really well! As a publicist just starting out, I couldn't have been more thrilled. You could tell Matt [Lauer], Katie [Couric], and Al [Roker] liked her a lot too. She came across as real and approachable and full of energy. But as I said, even before her Today Show appearance, I thought she had national TV potential. She was a natural before the camera as demonstrated by her WRGB tapes and I always got positive feedback from the booksellers who wanted her at their store for a signing—nothing like I had experienced with the authors I had worked with up until then.
How did the NBC spot lead to a meeting between Rachael and the Food Network? Back in 2001, the Food Network had a far more minor media presence than it does now — how did Rachael, in that stage of her career, and the network complement one another? What was the original thinking on what a collaboration between Rachael and the Food Network might look like?
It was synergy. As mentioned, I sent as many demo tapes as I could to the Food Network, so if they hadn‘t heard about her by then, then they would by the time I started follow-up. That "blanket" strategy paid off, I believe, because a day or two after her Today Show appearance, I scheduled her to be on WAMC Public Radio's "Vox Pop" in Albany. This was a contact of Rachael's. Someone associated with the Food Network was listening to the WAMC interview, liked what they heard, and called some other folks at the Food Network, who, fortunately, had already heard about her because I had sent them the tapes and press materials. So her appearance on The Today Show, coupled with her next-day WAMC Public Radio segment, led to her first meeting with Food Network executives. Right place, right time. Right around that time I also got her an interview on WHYY radio in Philadelphia, and I'm sure that didn't hurt either.
It was a day or two after her Today Show segment that I got a call from Bob Tuschman, vice president of programming and production at the Food Network, inquiring about scheduling a meeting with Rachael. This meeting would involve discussion beyond the scope of publicity — it was to talk about a possible opportunity for Rachael to host her own show. So I had accomplished my goal for Rachael, the cookbook, and more. The 2001 publicity plan for Comfort Foods was what got her foot solidly in the door at the Food Network, and she took it from there.
What's the nature of your relationship with Rachael Ray, currently? Do you keep in touch? Does she acknowledge that you were instrumental in connecting her with the Food Network? What is your title/affiliation now, and how did it evolve from what you were doing at National Book Network back in 2001?
A few months after the Comfort Foods campaign, I moved to Atlanta to attend graduate school at Georgia State University, where I studied communications. I didn't keep up with Rachael, other than what I saw or read in the media myself. In her book, Rachael Ray: 30 Minute Meals 2, which came out in 2003, she does thank me. As to what I do now, not long ago I was a freelance writer and book/film publicist, but soon I will join the staff of a publisher in Washington, D.C.
Are there any other clients you've seen since Ray whom you believe has the same kind of star power, and is poised to break out as significantly as she has? What are the qualities or elements that lead you to believe someone has this kind of potential?
I have worked with some authors who have a great story to tell, but may not be as compelling as an in-person interview. And there are others who have something unique to say, but beyond the release of their book, will only be of value to the media as news warrants. Some of the recent breakthroughs for me professionally have come from the publicity campaigns I contributed to in the indie film arena when I was a full-time freelance publicist.
I think the most important quality in an author or potential media personality is to know what you are talking about inside and out, because people can tell when you are full of hot air. Having a certain presence is important. It doesn't hurt to be likable on some level too. Then again, there are a lot of unpleasant personalities in the media today that people are drawn to, so maybe it's not always critical to be likable. But overall, it's hard to list specific "star power" qualities, because I imagine it's the same instinct that casting agents have when they see talent. They just know.
Jennifer Pullinger holds a BS degree in marketing from Virginia Tech and a MA degree in communications from Georgia State University. She has been a media professional for over 10 years.