Being a Black woman in the entertainment industry is no easy feat. The scales are seldom balanced. There is a constant battle to prove yourself worthy of a seat at the table. Even upon arrival, there is a sobering acceptance of being in an environment that was never designed to fit your presence. If Black women in the forefront of the industry have are still walking uphill, imagine, for a second, what it takes to be a Black-woman owned PR company representing some of the biggest names in the industry for over 30 years. The lessons. The struggles. The rewards.

W&W Public Relations Inc., led by the late Patti Webster and now PR veteran Karen E. Lee and the innovative Aliya Crawford, have been responsible for managing the public images of many greats. Everyone from the late great Prince to Janet Jackson, Usher, Kelly Rowland and more. As the world of PR changes, they maintain a level of excellence and mastery combined with a commitment to the culture that few in the industry can be credited with. There is no need to wonder why some of the world’s biggest stars entrust their brands to both Lee, Crawford and the W&W team. The work speaks for itself—and their longevity is proof of walking in their purpose. 

Needless to say, you’ll never see a iPhone notes apology from any of their clients. They are a brand with meticulously executed planning. They also have a relationship with their clients rooted in genuine respect and trust. That makes the images they’re responsible for maintaining ironclad. We caught up with the PR titans to talk branding, what the game’s been missing and what truly makes a publicist worth their salt. 

Iman N. Milner: Tell me a little about both of your journeys to this point. 

 

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Aliya Crawford: I was at Temple University and was really into tv and film, really. When I came out of school I was doing a lot of freelance work in that area and then I got the opportunity to work at W&W in an entry-level position. I hadn’t planned on going into PR but it was in the entertainment side and that’s what I was interested in. I was working for the VP, met with Patti Webster and that’s how I got my start in PR. I’ve been here ever since. Now, it’s more than 20 years later and W&W has worked with amazing people who I’ve always been fans of. I’ve been nurtured by so many great mentors, including Karen, who have taught me so much and been such great resources for me.

Karen E. Lee: I started out in the PR business more than a few years ago as an assistant to the legendary Henry Rogers (of Rogers & Cowan) which was a blessing. He was an incredible man who took a lot of time to teach me what I needed to know. He knew I wanted to go into the music business but he wanted me to understand how to handle companies. So, after a couple of years working for him, he promoted me to Director of Corporate Entertainment and it taught me a lot about the things that go into working with entertainment companies. After a few years there, I transferred to the music department and was promoted to Vice President. One day, I got a call from a woman who used to work at Rogers & Cowan and she wanted to talk to me about representing Prince. I took the job, initially, to represent P Music Group—-his company. After about three months, they called me and said he wanted me to represent him and move to Minneapolis. And I said “yes”.

INM: What was that experience like for you?

 

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KL: Well, I still hadn’t spoke to or met him at that point. Even after moving out near Paisley Park. We go on tour and my first stop was in Detroit, MI and he calls me and said he wanted to do a photoshoot three hours before the show. I’m like “excuse me?”. He also wanted to own the photos and we had no photographers on the road with us at the time. I got on the phone and started calling every newspaper, I said “whoever gets down there first, gets the job” and it worked out. It was a challenging job but I traveled around the world. You have so much respect for his talent and to have been able to know him, see him vulnerable or to get a call at 2am to come listen to a song that he’d just finished. I look back on that and am so grateful that I got to see that. Then I went to Warner Bros as VP of Media Relation and was there for 10 years. I left and started doing work with W&W. When Patti (Webster), who was like my sister, passed away, her brother called me and told me she left a percentage of the company to me. Me and Aliya. She wanted us to run the company and we’re moving it forward.

AC: Patti passing away in 2013 and leaving us to lead her business forward is such a major move. It’s so important that we create institutions to pass down within our community. Setting strong foundations so that our businesses don’t live and die with us is crucial for us.

INM: What do you think people get wrong about what PR is and what advice would you give to young publicists in the game?

 

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KL: One of the things, especially with social media, is that all of these platforms are marketing tools. Not just for whatever you do or what you’re selling but to give people insight into who you are. There could be some business owners watching who may think you or your client would make a good spokesperson solely based off of who they are. With PR, specifically, young people forget that it’s professional before social. Yes, you go out to dinner with clients and things but I don’t have drinks when I go out with a client. I always maintain that professional demeanor. Also, it takes time. You can’t establish a brand in 5 minutes. It has to be built.

AC: People have the impression, specifically in the entertainment side, that this is glamourous. It’s not just all events and red carpets. Those things occur sometimes, of course, but it’s a lot of hard work. No matter what type of fun is going on around you, you still have to be on top of your business. It can be rewarding but it comes with a lot of challenges and sacrifices. It’s a multidimensional job, it’s not for you if you just want to be at red carpets.

INM: With so many discussions about equity in both pay and opportunities available to Black women in the industry—the conversation doesn’t seem to deal with behind the scenes as much. It’s still pretty taboo to see an all Black team behind artists, what changes have you seen on that front?

 

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AC: Not enough, that’s for sure. I think now there’s more of a spotlight on the lack of equity so there’s more awareness but a lot more needs to be done to provide these opportunities to Black professionals. It’s all about access. And then there’s the part about pay. There’s still a lot of disparity between what Black companies are paid versus what other companies are paid for the same work. There has to be a lot more intentionality from the powers that be.

KL: I agree. And we have to learn to work together as African Americans. We can’t see one another as competition and we have to learn to not talk about it until it’s done. If someone comes to us and we can’t take it on, we’ll help them find another PR agency and we’ll go to a Black company first. We have to take away the mystique of the entertainment business and not gatekeep the opportunities. The diversity arm is dangerous…because it sounds like just a word. But what does that really mean, what are the actions?

AC: I’m part of an organization, The Show Must Pause, that really focuses on creating pipelines from colleges and universities to major record labels where students of color can have access to these opportunities. They’re actively recruiting minorities for entry-level positions and internships. The same thing needs to be done in our sector of the business.

INM: Karen, I want to talk a little about artist development, you are in a league of women like Suzanne DePasse when it comes to Black women who helped steer the careers of legendary musicians, but that’s a role that’s all but obsolete these days, what difference do you think that makes in not only the quality of the art but also the longevity of the artist?

 

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KL: Labels need to have an artist development department. The kids come out, have a hit record and they have no idea what to do next. I’ll have artists ask me to manage them and I’m like well, that’s your first problem. You don’t need a license to be a business manager in Los Angeles, meaning I can manage you, take all of your money and you wouldn’t even be able to afford a lawyer. But they don’t know how anything works so they need a person to teach them. Streaming doesn’t bring in money so that hit record? Doesn’t matter if you want to be able to live off of your talent. It’s about helping talent understand that who you are is what is going to keep you around. So do you even know who that is? If you don’t, how are you going to market it?

INM: Aliya, in the age of social media, media training can be more important than ever, what’s something we should all be thinking about (famous or not) before we hit send?

 

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AC: Define your brand well. You may be talented and you may have something great to share with the world but what is your brand? That’s what contributes to longevity. Who are you talking to? What are you offering to the world? It may evolve, and it should, but understanding that clearly makes all the difference when it comes to being successful. That’s where PR comes in because our job is to articulate that to the right people and companies to get you where you need to be. Tell your story and tell it well.

INM: Karen, you mentioned gatekeeping earlier, it’s not all the time that we see people from different generations in a company working as peers with such respect for one another’s experience and talents the way you and Aliya clearly do. 

KL: I am so grateful for this experience. We have a tremendous amount of respect for each other. We don’t always agree but we have never had an argument. It’s about what audience we’re trying to reach and who can best do that job. Having a conversation about it, always, and understanding that I am here as a resource to her and she is a resource for me. This company has been around for 30 years because we are able to grow and expand. If we’re going to move forward as a people, we have to embrace and respect all the generations and what they bring to the table. There has to be a loyalty and an open door that we have to each other.

AC: We embrace each other as assets. Even continuing this business is about having a space for younger PR professionals to have a space to come and get the training they need. We need to be represented at every major brand and we do that by bringing each other along for the journey. If we’re not doing that, what is it all for?

Aliya Crawfordblack publicistcelebrityChris PaulKaren E. Leekelly rowlandPrince