Philly Creative Guide

Creative Personality

Nina G. Zucker | Nina Zucker Associates

Interview :: Nina G. Zucker
by Juanita Berge, 1 Oct 2008

Nina Zucker, president of Nina Zucker Associates, is one of the most sought-after public relations counselors in the region, with a reputation for expertise in the areas of arts/entertainment, book publicity, hospitality and tourism. Her firm, established in 1987, has been a part of almost every major cultural initiative or event across the region. A Philadelphia native, Ms. Zucker was the first PR professional since 1954 to have been elected to two consecutive terms as President of the Board of Governors of the Philadelphia Public Relations Association (1995-1997). She was honored this past May with the organization's prestigious Hall of Fame Award.


PCG: What is your background?

NGZ: I actually started out as a graphic designer with a BFA from Moore College of Art. My grandmother and great-grandmother were both artists, and they instilled in me a passion and interest for the arts that has influenced my career from the beginning. But I realized pretty early on that graphic design itself was simply a passion, not the passion.

So after working in design for the first couple of years after college, including a stint as assistant art director at a monthly lifestyle magazine in Florida, I took a job with a condominium developer. It was the height of the condo boom of the 1980s, and developers were buying up buildings, many of which housed longtime elderly tenants, and reconstructing them for purchase only. There was a widespread antagonism for this practice that escalated very quickly in some instances, and because I happened to know a number of the people who were being affected, I became an intermediary between the tenants, the company, and the media, and was able to diffuse some very hostile situations. It was one of the many times in my career where I truly felt fate was leading the way. I didn't make a conscious effort to move into PR, but I was always a great writer and I liked to talk, so it seemed like a great fit right away.


PCG: How did you get started in the public relations field?

NGZ: I saw an ad for an opening at Please Touch Museum for Children in Philadelphia and wrote a letter to the head of PR at the museum at the time -- Sharla Feldscher. She called me in for a meeting and told me it was the best cover letter she had ever read, but that she didn't have the funds for a full-time position. I was disappointed but still hopeful, thinking that if she liked me, someone else would too, but I didn't have long to worry -- she hired me a week later.

Sharla was enormously inspiring and motivating – and quickly became a mentor, a role model, and a friend. She had an infectious sense of wonderment and excitement about her work, and I caught the disease. At the time, the museum was only days away from moving into its new home on 21st Street, and Sharla threw me into the fire immediately -- pitching national television networks, writing press releases, and planning events for the museum. I loved it. More, I loved that I was having fun doing something that had significance – not only was the museum an entertainment destination, it was a wonderful educational tool for children. And I haven't stopped since.

Interview :: Nina G. Zucker

PCG: Why did you decide to go into business for yourself?

NGZ: In 1987 I had been the Associate Director of Public Information at WHYY for two years. I was actually in the midst of exploring a move into tv as an on-air arts reporter and was sending out demo tapes to stations around the country and receiving positive feedback. All of a sudden -- and it literally was within a two-week period -- four people contacted me and asked for my help with their PR activities. So in a way they made the decision for me. I realized that with the successful work I had done and the contacts I had made, starting my own firm might be a better bet than tv, and a viable business option. It was truly a case of being in the right place at the right time. I could never have done it without having those first clients fall into my lap, but with the income in front of me, I decided to go for it, and the rest is history.


PCG: How would you describe yourself?

NGZ: Besides being short? I'm an idea machine. A creative strategist. And a connector. One of my greatest strengths is that I have an ability to come up with "out-of-the-box" ideas that will both generate attention AND tie in to whatever is making news in the real world at any given moment – whether it is a current trend, breaking news story, etc.

For instance? I convinced then-Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode to ride an elephant at a Ringling Brothers performance for underprivileged children; had a group of elementary school kids paint a cow in the style of Cezanne outside of Memorial Hall for the Philadelphia County Fair, which was opening the same weekend as the record-setting Cezanne exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; convinced then-Police Commissioner John Timmoney to connect with his inner Dubliner by dancing with the cast of Riverdance on Dilworth Plaza at City Hall to promote the opening of the show at the Mann Center; staged a battle between the Mouse King and the Mice from the Pennsylvania Ballet's production of The Nutracker and the cats from CATS in order to promote the ballet at the same time the Broadway musical was making its Philadelphia debut, and we were competing for both audience and media coverage.

You have to think out of the box, but it's important to also remember that it's not just a matter of coming up with a wacky idea. There has to be substance at the core, and you have to know the value so you can fight for it if need be.


PCG: What are the key elements to great public relations campaigns?

NGZ: Obviously, every campaign or project is different and demands an individually targeted strategy and tactics, but in general the key elements should include:

  • Making sure that the plan is project and client-appropriate
  • Making sure that you and the client have the capability to fully implement the program, and that includes staffing or volunteer bodies, budget, logistics, etc.
  • Making sure that the client or company's expectations are realistic. Many times clients think that by hiring a PR firm or employee that they will be featured on the front page of the New York Times and the evening news immediately. By understanding what your client or employer needs you can set reasonable expectations for them and ensure a positive relationship.
  • Beyond the above, you also need the campaign to be fresh, timely, newsworthy

PCG: How do you build good relationships with the media?

NGZ: There's really only one way to do that, and that is by working with them. Good relationships demand a level of trust, and that only comes with time. You have to know what they need to do their job. Don't try to push a sports story to a food reporter, unless there's a food angle that would fit their beat. If you're pitching a columnist, or a niche publication, you need to do your homework – know what they write about. Read the paper or the magazine or watch or listen to the tv or radio program so you can tailor your pitch appropriately. For the most part, you have one chance to make a good first impression. If they think you know what you're doing you'll gain their respect. If not, you can destroy any future possibility of working with them with one phone call. Some practical tips:

Tell the truth. It will keep you out of trouble. If you're not sure of something, or don't know the answer, say so. "I don't know, but I'll find out for you." or... "let me get back to you with that." The media will respect you for it, so will clients, and you will never have to worry about backtracking on a story.

Keep 'em talking. As long as you can present a valid argument, and can continue to point out angles, new information, etc., you have the chance to win with an editor or reporter or sponsor. "well, did you know that... " often does the job. Stay two steps ahead of them and you'll be fine.

BE THOROUGH!!! It's the details that matter.

Be persistent.

Interview :: Nina G. Zucker

PCG: Have you ever had trouble convincing clients of your way of thinking? If so, how did you overcome that?

NGZ: Two specific instances come to mind:

  1. When I was working for Please Touch Museum, I volunteered as a deputy press secretary for Gary Hart's Presidential campaign committee. Gary shared many of the same attractive qualities as Barack Obama in his charisma, excitement, and ability to inspire people. It was a fantastic experience.

    During his Pennsylvania campaign tour, I spoke with my contacts on the committee and convinced Gary to make a campaign stop at the museum to speak with the parents of Philadelphia's youth. Problem was, the director of the museum at the time was not pleased because of the tumult it would create. So she basically threw it into my lap and didn't show up. I could have made the decision to cancel the event to please her, but I knew the level of visibility we'd receive and ultimately decided to move forward at my own risk. We dressed the kids in Please Touch costumes, and gave everyone fortune cookies with "Hart 4 President" inscribed on the paper. The media coverage was outrageous -- live on all the morning shows, front page coverage in the Inquirer and virtually every other major daily in the country, and the cameras followed as I gave the candidate a tour of the museum.
  2. While I was at the Pennsylvania Ballet, the legendary CATS musical debuted during the same time as the Ballet's annual Nutcracker production. Naturally we were competing for audience attendees as well as media coverage.

    I had the idea to stage a "fight" between the Mouse King of Nutracker and the cats from CATS. Major local media showed up to watch the Mouse King march from the Academy of Music down to the Forrest Theatre to tangle with some of the cats. The ballet leadership at the time thought the idea was ridiculous, and I ended up having to put up money out of my own pocket to pay the unionized makeup artists to help with the stunt.

    Both of those events were successful because it was a win-win for both parties, so the risk was calculated and in my view, minimal. But you need to be able to both know your client and/or organization and how far the envelope can be pushed in any specific situation. All that said, it's the kind of thing that demands great caution and careful consideration, and even then, it may backfire. In these instances I knew the ultimate reward was worth the trouble and the risk, but that's not always the case.

    Both are also a perfect example of two of the most important elements of PR: originality and the ability to tie your story to the larger picture. To whatever is currently making news and happening in the world. Original ideas will always be more attractive to both the media and the publics you are trying to reach. And no matter how big or small your client or employer is, if you can tie their story to a story that's hot in the media or a particular industry or trend, you have a much better chance of getting attention.

PCG: What has been your most successful campaign, story or idea?

NGZ: That's so hard to say, because truthfully, there have been so many. A few that stand out include:

  • Creating and launching the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center at Bryn Mawr College and awarding of the first Hepburn Medals to actors Blythe Danner and Lauren Bacall;
  • Helping to create a national phenomenon with the question, "would you spend a night with someone for a million dollars?" for client Jack Engelhard, author of the novel Indecent Proposal;
  • Convincing Presidential candidate Gary Hart to make a campaign stop at Please Touch Museum for Children;
  • Making US Bronze Pairs Champions Natalie and Wayne Seybold the story of the 1988 Calgary Olympics;
  • Creating a national media frenzy and hunt for $85,000 worth of tutus stolen from Pennsylvania Ballet, resulting in such widespread attention that the tutus were recovered...
  • Getting the Philadelphia Inquirer to do a 5-part week-long feature series on Pennsylvania Ballet Behind-the-Scenes. Reporters Don Drake and Steve Seplow practically lived at the ballet for almost 6 months. The story ran on the front page every day that week.

PCG: Who have been some of your more notable clients?

NGZ: Recent projects include the opening of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre for client Suzanne Roberts; the launch of the National Geographic Traveler Magazine's announcement of Philadelphia as America's Next Great City; the Philadelphia Freedom Concert and Ball featuring Elton John that was the largest outdoor HIV/AIDS benefit ever held...

In addition -- American Philosophical Society's first public exhibition initiative in 190 years; Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project; Battleship New Jersey; Bryn Mawr Hospital Centennial; Clear Channel Entertainment; Fairmount Park Commission; Greater Phila Tourism Marketing Corporation; Artist Peter Max and Ocean Galleries; Pennsylvania Ballet; Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema; Philadelphia Freedom July 4th Concert/Benefit for HIV/AIDS with Elton John; Philadelphia Magazine; The Franklin Institute Franklin Awards; 2000Feet: A Festival of World Dance; The Volunteer Summit for America's Future; the national roll-out of Quigley Corp's COLD-EEZE zinc lozenge; 1988 Winter Olympics and more.

And... the 15th Anniversary Celebration for the Public Interest Law Center honoring the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan and including the first-ever Philadelphia Symposium on Civil Liberties featuring NBC News broadcast journalist Andrea Mitchell, worked with the Senate Press Gallery for the 2000 Republican National Convention and coordinated a campaign event for Gore/Lieberman at Little Souls, Inc., a doll factory in Philadelphia.

"...volunteer for everything... The key is to find something that they can be passionate about..."

PCG: What advice do you have for people just starting out in the field?

NGZ: I tell young people trying to break into the industry all the time to volunteer for everything they can -- a non-profit organization, political campaign, cultural institutions – and of course industry organizations such as Philadelphia Public Relations Association – as a way to gain seasoning and hone their communications skills, and also help network and make contacts that could be valuable throughout their career. The key is to find something that they can be passionate about. And an environment – and people -- that will inspire and encourage them.

One of the things that has been so fulfilling about having my own business has been the opportunity to perpetuate the legacy I was lucky enough to receive from so many of the brilliant and wise and creative veterans that were my role models -- by encouraging and nurturing young people who are just starting out. There are people across the region and beyond who began their careers with me, or whom I've helped along the way both before and after I launched my firm -- with internships and part time or full-time positions. And I'm tremendously proud of their successes, and the small or large impact I have had on their careers.

It's not an easy business. You need to be organized and able to juggle a million things at once. You need to read everything -- magazines, papers, watch tv, listen to radio, read bloggers and explore major industry-related websites. Bottom line is, in order for us to do our job, we need to be aware of our world. You never know where the next idea will come from. Prime example? The film Working Girl. Most of all, you need passion. You must be 100% passionate about what you're representing, or no one will believe what you're telling them, whether the media or your audiences or consumers.


PCG: To what extent are you involved with online social media avenues?

NGZ: More all the time – through industry or audience-specific blogs, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc. PR professionals no longer have an option to incorporate these tactics for themselves and their clients, they simply must. We have to be knowledgeable and able to move forward as technology moves, to be able to utilize tactics and avenues of information dissemination that are so critical today. Our business has always been about going out and reaching intended audiences. Today, these audiences are reading blogs, using social networking sites, and posting stories online. Traditional media is still very much alive, but it's up to us to know how to incorporate all avenues of information dissemination. We work with all of our clients to find the best fit for their organization or product, and what is going to help them achieve their goals.


PCG: Looking back over your career, is there anything that you would do differently?

NGZ: Not really. For the most part, I've been incredibly lucky in terms of how my career has moved forward. It's been much more organic than strategic -- things happening at the right time, landing jobs and then clients that have been both challenging and fun as well as being substantial and meaningful – projects and organizations that I could be passionate about. But finding ways to make more money would have been nice.


PCG: You've received lots of awards and recognition. What have been the highlights for you?

NGZ: More than any other, receiving the Philadelphia Public Relations Association Hall of Fame Award this past May. To be so recognized by one's peers is really the ultimate accolade. And after 25 years as a member of the oldest and largest organization for PR professionals in the country, including a longtime member of the Board and two years as president, it meant more than I can ever say.

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