Top 6 PR Lessons Learned from Fox’s Primetime Drama Empire

If you’re like me you’re still buzzing about the season finale of Fox’s monster new drama “Empire” and mourning that you’ll have to wait months for season two to start so you can get more nuggets of wisdom from the show’s ferocious lioness Cookie (Taraji P. Henson). Cookie is an expert at commanding a room and dropping a sound bite: “The streets ain’t made for everyone, that’s why they made sidewalks.” This show is chockfull of life lessons, financial lessons and even PR lessons… here’s my top 6….

1. Timing is everything.

With an IPO deal hanging in the balance Lucious (Terrence Howard) knows that his annual white party has to impress. Two of his sons, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett), have albums about to drop and everything needs to be timed precisely to ensure that the label gets the maximum buzz out of both artists. There’s much to consider: what’s best for the artist, best for the label, what else is happening in the market at the time, etc. Looking at your “big announcement” as a huge opportunity, from all angles, is key to ensuring you’re maximizing your client’s investment and ensuring your best chance for exceeding expectations. In “Empire” there’s plenty of jockeying that goes on regarding who is the hottest and thus can impress investors the most… which leads to the next lesson.

2. Live events can go off-track; just own it and spin it.

Jamal decides to use the while party as not only his chance to establish himself as an artist, but also to publicly come out as a gay artist…thus sticking it to Lucious at the same time. His father made it clear in the past that he disapproved (and this is the polite way to put it) of Jamal’s homosexuality. Cookie couldn’t be more pleased that Jamal decided to finally let out his “roar,” although she was surprised as well. The lesson? Both smiled and nodded as if they orchestrated the whole thing. As publicists this is what is required at live events. You do everything you can to meticulously manage each detail, but ultimately you have no control once the performance begins. So when it doesn’t work out as planned it’s key to keep your cool. Remember: your attendees don’t know that it wasn’t scripted the entire time (in most cases). Make them thing the “snafu” was part of the show

3. There’s always a Boo Boo Kitty.

Anika (Grace Gealey), is Lucious’ new lady and obviously Cookie’s natural rival. Cookie is quick to give her a demoralizing nickname, to her face in true Cookie style, and thus Boo Boo Kitty was born. Who is she? She’s smart, beautiful, shiny and new. She’s everything you’re existing client thinks that they are missing out on at another agency, but you’re the one that’s done hard time for them. You’re the one that gave them three gorgeous kids. But they can’t help, but be enamored… and guess what? It’s not their fault. It’s your job, our job, to bring them fresh ideas, even fresh faces regularly to keep them from straying. It’s our job to regularly remind them of our rich experience and how our intimate knowledge of their business makes us the better choice… leading to our next lesson.

4. Always keep an eye on the competition and do your research.

PR, much like the music industry, can be cutthroat. When Lucious finds out that Anika has been talking to his arch rival in the business he’s quick to put the entire office on red alert. Lockdown the most important talent and try to retain anyone who could be a game-changer for the label. This is a data-driven endeavor where every second and every relationship counts. It’s quickly evident that they know exactly who, how and where their rival will try to strike out and so are in turn able to put together a counter strategy in no time. As publicists we regularly prepare our clients for a crisis, but we need to ensure the agency is prepared as well.

5. Don’t mistake celebrity for influence.

So how do you ensure that you have the types of relationships that will hold up in a crisis? Obviously, long-term, regular connection where you can truly get to know someone is the best situation, but this isn’t always possible or scalable. So what then? Is it the biggest, most prominent name that you should focus on? As publicists we know better. If you want the celebrity you have to know how to motivate them, and when it’s not just about the dollars that’s done through the people that influence them the most. As we see in “Empire” when everyone is trying to sign Titan through traditional inroads it’s Cookie who is able to make it happen by identifying who has the most influence over the artist and establishing a connection with them (in this case his mother).

6. Don’t be afraid to use guerrilla tactics if the situation calls for it.

In an effort to retain Empire’s most valuable artists Cookie finds herself on the wrong side of the tracks trying to convince Royale-T to stay with the label. This is particularly difficult since he’s at a studio with guys from rival music label Creedmore. After exhausting all verbal objection handling, Cookie relies on guerrilla tactics… she challenges him and his crew to a drinking contest. If they pass out first then Royale-T stays with Empire; if she’s out first then it’s over. Of course, Cookie’s a smart lady who never asks a question she doesn’t know the answer to (another good PR lesson) and who never throws down a challenge without being sure she can win. As the last man standing, Cookie seals the deal. Sometimes it’s necessary to know when old school tactics are what’s required to get the job done. This is why I’ll never buy that media drops and desksides are a thing of the past.

What life lessons have you learned from Cookie? I’d love to hear your thoughts…