Drive down the legendary Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and you’ll be confronted with billboard after massive billboard adorned with familiar celebrity faces. Take a stroll past major studios and you’ll find yourself in the shadow of stories-high posters for the latest TV and film offerings. LA’s image is strongly associated with the rich and famous, and for good reason. Yet the unsung heroes in town are the ones that have helped build the success of these talented faces.
Melissa Berger is one of these behind-the-scenes professionals. She’s been in PR for most of her career representing talent, producing events, orchestrating brand launches, and on and on. You’ll find her at many functions around town, from accompanying clients on the red carpet to chatting with reporters at the after party. Berger may have a stealthy online footprint, but when you ask local professionals for a publicist recommendation, chances are her name will come up.
Originally from LA, Berger moved to Las Vegas at a young age and stayed in Nevada to complete an undergraduate degree at the University of Nevada, Reno. After working in Modesto and Las Vegas, she had an opportunity to head back to LA for a Production Assistant (PA) job through one of her mentors, and found herself back in her city of birth mere days later. Afterwards, she shifted to a new job at a PR agency for a time, and finally found her calling when she struck out on her own. Berger has forged onward and over the last ten years as a talent and events publicist she’s helped her clients get into the spotlight and onto the front page. She was kind enough to take time to share some career insights from her life.
Show Yourself to the World
Mentors have been the catalyst for several of Berger’s career advancements. Her move into the PA job in LA was facilitated by a mentor, and another mentor had a hand in her decision to go independent as a publicist. Berger has always been outspoken and shown her true colors to those around her, and in turn they’ve helped guide her at crucial times by steering her back to the best fit for who she is.
Berger even suspects some of them knew she was destined for PR before she did. “I’ve always been in the world of PR even if I wasn’t directly doing it as my main job,” she says of her early career. When she worked in Modesto she ran a popular blog about being the only female staffer in a sports-industry office. And in her PA job she always added her own ideas to the mix when sitting in on pitch meetings.
On occasion revealing who you are can be scary or result in seemingly negative consequences. Yet revealing ourselves can propel us forward if we harness the opportunity. Berger’s time as a PA ended abruptly when her boss took her aside and informed her she needed to move on. “You’re going to hate me for doing this,” he reportedly said, “but you don’t belong here in this job. You’re way too creative and outgoing.” He encouraged her to find a career path that would allow her to express herself fully and play off the creative thinking she’d shown.
Reflecting on the experience, Berger knows that incident launched her into the next career phase by making her to consider new options like PR, but at the time it was devastating for a young woman just getting started.
Understand and Respect Your Connections
They say it all comes down to who you know, but Berger’s tactic for building deeper professional relationships is respect. When you spend your days interacting with journalists, photographers, brands, and talent it is imperative to understand who the person is that you’re talking to and what interests are driving them. In PR, a good pitch that stands a chance of landing coverage has to show an understanding of the recipient’s position and needs. Showing respect and sensitivity towards others is what helped build Berger’s strong, supportive professional network.
An example is how Berger found her first office. When one of her mentors encouraged her to lock down an available space in Beverly Hills, she was skeptical saying, “I can’t afford an office there—are you nuts?” Yet, it turned out the landlord was a talent agency that needed help representing their people to the media. By identifying and addressing their needs, Berger was able to work out a partial trade agreement that allowed her to take the office and jump start her new business.
Even when Berger was starting out as a publicist, those around her already respected her passion and positivity. “I behave such that if you ask people about me, there isn’t much negative they can say about my work or the respect I give people,” she says. But it isn’t just about feeling good or being kind. Her approach opens doors for herself and her clients, providing a strategic advantage. “That impression people have of me is what can get a new and unknown client on the wire and build their career. It makes all the difference.”
Doing Business in Los Angeles
LA is arguably the epicenter of talent in the US and Berger says she wouldn’t be able to be the kind of publicist she is now anywhere else. Seeing the constant tide of people heading to LA on a dream of movie, music, or TV stardom, Berger cautions against being propelled purely by motivational platitudes: “Generally the talent is there in a lot of these hopeful people, but it is very hard to obtain the lifestyle they’re picturing.”
In a city where everyone from your barista to your roommate was once the big, talented fish in their small pond back home, Berger says, “It really is about the relationships you build [when you get to LA], which in the end comes down to how you treat people.”
On the other hand, Berger observes that LA holds many opportunities for those with an idea or product to bring to market. “You can pitch any kind of project here and find someone to fund it, support it, or participate in it. I’ve seen the craziest events, the most unique things get attention and investment.” If you’re coming to LA with a dream of creating something new, the area is full of innovative ways and financial means to realize that dream.
Failing Isn’t the End
If Berger could give one piece of advice it would be this: “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and fail—it does not make you a failure.” As she looks back on her career thus far, she has gone through many changes and bumps in the road, but is glad about the leaps she’s taken. “Everyone has a growing process at any stage of life where they learn a lot from their mistakes and decisions they’ve made. The decisions I’ve made have made me the professional I am now.”
Oh and that boss who fired her way back when she was a PA? She ran into him again years later and he expressed his happiness for her fruitful career path. And they’ve stayed in touch since then.