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 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:


This show is chockfull of life lessons, financial lessons and even PR lessons… here are 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’s 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 exceeding their 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; own it and spin it.

Jamal decides to use the white party not only as his chance to establish himself as an artist, but also to publicly come out as a gay artist…and sticking it to Lucious at the same time. His father made it clear in the past that he disapproved (that’s putting it politely!) of Jamal’s homosexuality. Cookie couldn’t be more pleased that Jamal decided to finally let out his “roar,” although she too was shocked.

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 (in most cases). Make them think 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 your 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 best choice… leading to our next lesson.

4. 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 retain anyone who could be a game-changer for the label. This is a data-driven endeavor where every second and every relationship counts. They know whom, how and where their rival will try to strike out, and in turn, are able to quickly 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, too.

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 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

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 one standing, Cookie seals the deal.

Sometimes it’s necessary to know when old school tactics are 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 the biggest show on television right now? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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