Publicist’s Passion Shines in LA

by Paul Frankenberg on January 26, 2013

Alie Birchfield

Ailie Birchfield

University of Southern California, Bachelor of Arts, Communication
Graduated May 2012

How did you pick the college you attended?
Starting out I knew I wanted to work in the entertainment industry, but being from Georgia I really had no concept of what I could even pursue. I just knew that I loved watching movies and Hollywood always fascinated me.

So I was deciding between New York and LA. I knew I wanted a big city.  I went and visited all the schools that I thought I was interested in, which I highly recommend. I visited USC and something clicked for me.

I could see myself fitting in with the culture. The students seemed so genuinely happy to be there. It was an amazing campus, and it was sort of that feeling of like, “This is where I’m meant to be.”  I think I had to consider and visit multiple schools to know what environment would be best for me.  Everything that they offered was something that I was looking for. Plus, coming from a small private high school, I wanted school spirit with a good football team and USC of course has this (except this past season which I think we’d all like to forget).

Whether or not I knew what I wanted to pursue in college, I am the type of person who feels like college is the time to get out of your comfort zone and have new experiences.  USC fit that mold perfectly for me.

What or who influenced your decision?
I would say it was purely my choice. I am the kind of a person who doesn’t like to be told what to do.  Which is to a fault, I know.  I talked with my parents through the decision process and my parents told me that they knew that USC was perfect for me.

It was not one specific thing. USC has a certain atmosphere and environment and I think when you find that place where you can really thrive, it just makes your college experience that much better.

So no, other than just wanting to get out of Atlanta and away from my small, private school, it was my decision.

What did you go to college to study?
I originally entered as a double major, business and theater.  Graduating high school, my knowledge of the entertainment industry was limited to everything in front of the camera. Plus I participated in theater during high school and thought I wanted to pursue it at the next level in college.

And the business major was to complement the entertainment industry.  However, math and economics is not my thing and I wasn’t satisfied with the theater curriculum.  I didn’t look forward to theatre, it didn’t excite me.

Did you change majors in college and why?
During the second semester of my freshman year, my advisor suggested that I take a communication course just to see what it was like.  She knew my interest in entertainment along with my dissatisfaction with the business and theater programs. The class was called “Media and Society” and I fell in love with the course. We discussed and studied the application of people using media to get a message across.  We had people like Warren Beatty, Oliver Stone, Alan Alda, Norman Lear, Arianna Huffington, Julia Louis-Dryefus, Maria Shriver and other amazing guests talk to our class.

I realized that what we were talking about, in relation to the entertainment industry, is what I wanted to pursue, versus the economics side of the industry.  I changed my major that same semester and never looked back.

What activities did you engage in and what internships and / or jobs did you have while in college?
I was big on internships during college and that is in large part due to the staff at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism – they sent us a daily email with internship and job opportunities. They have a whole career center where you can go talk to them and they’ll bring recruiters on campus. I remember meeting with recruiters from great organizations such as ESPN.  You have to be proactive and take advantage of the opportunities through USC but there are plenty of opportunities and I was eager to get involved.

When the Olympics were around, NBC chose USC and two other schools to find interns to go to London. I didn’t do it because I was not interested to go into sports but it was those sorts of things that made me realize that I wanted to get out and get real world experience.

It was the professors, too.  In some classes we could receive extra credit for having an internship.  I started my first internship the spring semester of my sophomore year and I interned every semester and every summer after that.

And then as far as school activities, once I realized PR is what I wanted to do, I tried to find as many related opportunities as I could.  For one semester I held an external PR role for my sorority.  I was in an honor society and I was the VP of PR for a year.  I thought it was important for employers to see that I really was interested in PR.  I wanted to show employers my interest in PR by pursuing opportunities in academic and extra-curricular activities and internships.

Tell me about your most useful resources to you in launching out of college: CMC, Internships, Family & Personal Contacts, Alumni, etc.
It would be a combination of all the things.  Each semester I would probably apply for, I’m guessing, 30 different intern positions. I would maybe get five responses and that was even after I had some big name studios on my list.  There’s one thing about LA and New York and that is that everybody knows each other.   I realized that I had to work hard, meet as many people as I could and be persistent.  Then when I interned, I wanted to build relationships with others.   I worked at Fox and I had a contact that got me in touch with a recruiter at Paramount and, as a result, I was able to have a 30-minute conversation with Paramount.  That call went well and the recruiter began to consider what department I would fit best in.  This is a big difference to applying into each department and having your resume shuffled through and passed over. The recruiter I initially talked with, Ruben, and I are still really close.  After our initial conversation, he told me, “You would be perfect for publicity.”

So that’s how I got into the yearlong internship at Paramount doing publicity.  I found I loved the work and the rest is history.  But remember, it was a contact at Fox and an internship that got me into Paramount, which really helped me determine if I liked publicity.

My Dad was very helpful too.  There were times when I didn’t know how to write a thank you note after I met someone.  I didn’t know what to say in cover letters and he was so helpful with this based on his years of being in the recruiting business.

However, there are aspects to the entertainment industry that he is not familiar with.  For instance, when you’re getting your first job most industries and corporations start recruiting a year ahead.  You have to make sure to get into the process very early. Entertainment is unique in that it’s the opposite. They only start looking to fill a position once it’s vacant. So we strategized ways I could “look” for a job without being able to apply (since I hadn’t graduated yet). I started to hit the ground running with our strategy after spring break, going on informational interviews, and six weeks later (end of April) I had three official offers.

Tell me how you landed your first job out of college?
I was at Paramount for a year, which was just an amazing experience.  Several people there really took me under their wing.  I think because I was excited about what I was doing, I reached out and really took the initiative to meet as many people in the department as possible and work on as many films and projects as possible.  I remember going to one of the executives and she said, “I didn’t even know we had interns until you came.”

It got to the point where the EVP would have me cover her desk when her assistant was out of the office, which apparently I was the first and only intern asked to do that. I wanted to stay longer than a semester and I was doing whatever I could to learn and become involved.

You know, interns often think that it’s glamorous, working the red carpet for entertainment shows.  However, it’s a lot of tough work and long hours.  I think they were kind of shocked when I asked to stay for a second semester.  They had me walking the carpet with them, teaching me how to do things and meeting press contacts.  I was doing and learning tremendously, valuable experience that I shouldn’t have the opportunity to do and learn as an intern.

When it came time to start looking at jobs, I sat down with my supervisors and they set up a bunch of informational interviews for me.  Through the informal meetings, I met my current boss and her assistant was leaving.  Erica hired me a week before graduation.  I’ve been with her since May 2012.

Are there one or two things you were doing that you think motivated these folks to try and give you a little bit more attention to help you along?
I think my biggest thing was being willing to ask questions.  I would ask to schedule meetings with them to sit down and really learn as much as possible. That’s one thing my dad always told me is people love to talk about themselves and what they do. So I would just go and ask for time and that’s how I met the EVP.  I asked, “Could I please have just ten minutes of your time to hear how you got to where you are because one day I want to be in your position?”

Through these discussions they realized that I was serious and they began involving me in small projects.  When I came back in the fall for my second semester interning, I knew how things worked and I told the assistants as well as the publicists that I would love more responsibility.  I quickly became more and more involved in various projects.  In addition to more project work, I would ask to shadow someone else in a different department for a day, which they were more than happy to do.  Through shadowing I was able to see work I would enjoy and work I was not interested in.  My dad always gave me this type of advice.  He would tell me to learn as much about the company and how it works.  He would tell me to try to figure out how the company makes money and how they really run the business.  I wanted to learn how the system worked.  That’s actually how I got my first taste of publicity.  I was interning at Universal in Marketing Partnerships and we would sometimes work with publicity so I asked to shadow their department for a day. I think just being open minded and asking a lot of questions will get you pretty far.

Why did you leave and where do you work now?
I graduated from USC in May 2012 and joined a larger PR firm, Slate PR, as Erica’s assistant.  In late June, Erica decided to move to a smaller boutique firm, Viewpoint, and asked me to go with her. The transition was a little tough but Viewpoint has been great.

In your current role, what are you responsible for?
I’m an assistant to a publicist. That’s another thing in the entertainment industry, everybody starts out as an assistant.  Whether you’re 33 or 23, that’s what you do.  The role includes making sure my boss’s calendar is set, handling all administrative needs and details and working with the clients a lot. Today, a Saturday, I was at a stylist fitting for a client’s upcoming red carpet appearances. Basically the role of a publicist is to be the actor or actress’s advocate.  Any time there’s a photo shoot, the publicist will be there just to make sure that they’re not forced to wear something that they don’t like, the look is right, the photographer is not trying to do something that they don’t feel comfortable doing, etc.  Any time you see someone on a late night talk show, on a cover of a magazine or even the inside of a magazine that’s the work of a publicist. Unlike advertising, which buys ad space, publicity has no money involved. It’s essentially a symbiotic relationship between the publication/press and the talent publicist. The actor/actress has a project to promote and the magazine or talk show feels their viewers will benefit from that guest.

Go back to your sophomore, junior or senior year of college.  Does your current role fit with the professional passions you identified in college?
By my senior year, yes.  But even my sophomore and junior year I still didn’t know what I wanted to do and I figured it out through trial and error.  I felt confident I wanted to be in the entertainment industry but I didn’t know really what that meant or what I wanted to pursue.  My first internship was for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” where I worked in casting.  I learned that I didn’t want to do casting or reality TV.  I then went to Universal and did marketing partnerships followed by Fox doing market research.  I realized market analytics was not the right role for me.  So yes, by my senior year, I for sure knew what I wanted to do and my role now is exactly what I expected to do.

Looking back, this type of work really fits well with the interests I had while growing up. I’ve always loved working with and dealing with people but in a challenging and demanding environment.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you provide to a current college student?
I think I would say, don’t be closed-minded and try everything. Try as much as you can and be a sponge. Ask questions and know that finding out what you don’t like is just as valuable as what you do like.

Interview conducted Dec. 2012
Ailie’s comments were audio recorded, compiled and condensed by:
Paul Frankenberg
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