Media coach Tracey Pepper is a master of reinvention.
Over the past eight years, she’s helped best-selling rock stars retool their messages, aided newbie pop singers in crafting their stories, and overhauled the narratives of A-list television actors, high-powered technology and retail executives, top athletes, and members of the fashion industry.
But Pepper’s first subject in the art of reinvention was herself. A former journalist who cut her teeth at The New York Observer, Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” section, and who edited features for seven years at venerable rock bible Spin as well as at Interview, Pepper moved back to her native Los Angeles just as the magazine market was taking a tumble. Jobs were scarce, but Pepper, a no-nonsense, fiery redhead with an outgoing demeanor, forged a new career path for herself. After reconnecting with her many contacts at record labels, she began penning bios for music artists. While conducting interviews, she realized her subjects were struggling to tell their stories in a way that media would find compelling.
They needed a coach. And not just any coach: they needed her — a skilled journalist who could show them how to “crack the code” (as she put it) as to why media outlets chose to cover certain artists.
Armed with the experience of working with some of the best writers and editors in the country — including Chuck Klosterman, Sia Michel, Peter Kaplan, Jim Windolf, Marc Spitz, and Andy Greenwald — she knew that her clients needed to deliver more than a monosyllabic murmur to get journalists interested. If they wanted to raise their media profile they needed a story. They had to be smart, interesting — and most importantly, authentic.
There was one problem: she’d never conducted a media-training session before. So she trained herself. Recalling the time she herself was asked to do an on-camera interview as a Spin editor she recalls: “The minute they turned the lens on me, I forgot my own name. I couldn’t put a sentence together. That actually happened in front of a BBC film crew. I also I did an entire on-camera interview with CNBC completely unaware that I was rocking back and forth in my seat.”
She asked herself the types of questions her clients would have to answer, and tried to articulate those answers herself. It was harder than she thought. “I really began to understand the necessity of being able to talk and think at the same time,” she says. “It’s something that I train my clients to do, which is to keep your wits about you and have confidence that if you can say it off camera, you can say it on camera.”
In this, Pepper upends the popular misconception that media coaches put words in their clients’ mouths. Instead of giving them a script, she says, she helps them to craft their own genuine message. She does this by using her journalism skills, interviewing clients off-camera to draw out their story — a process that involves digging deep for the most forceful narrative. She then coaches them to deliver it smoothly on-camera, keeping a close watch on body language, eye contact, energy level, and tone of voice. Her clients discover new things about themselves and a fresh angle is revealed.
In a way, her sessions are a combination of therapy, self-exploration, and coaching — custom-designed to take one’s skills to a higher level. “I always thought media trainers were just spin doctors, and they were just trying to obscure personality,” she says. “You can hire someone to do that, if that’s what you’re looking for. I think there’s a more effective approach.”
Unlike many media coaches who charge exorbitant fees for on-set monitoring, Pepper is nimble, and often travels to her clients for a day session. Her goal is to teach them techniques that instill enough poise so they can sail through any interview and field any type of question, no matter the setting. Her clients emerge from sessions self-reliant and able to handle TV segments, radio shows, in-person print interviews, red carpets, and phone interviews with the utmost confidence.
Pepper’s natural self-assurance, coupled with her journalism background and education (she holds an M.S.J. in Journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a B.A. in English from Tufts University), allows everyone from colorful music artists, to world-class athletes, to powerful CEOs to trust her with helping them craft their message. Her experience writing about rock bands for Spin, fashion and beauty trends for Harper’s Bazaar, and filing cultural reportage pieces for The New York Observer has enabled her to train disparate groups of people with very distinct needs. She’s also able to navigate the various members of a client’s team, tapping into her inner den mother or her strict task-master, as needed.
Her results speak for themselves: she has many return clients, including some who balked at the initial idea of media coaching, but who were transformed by the process and now actually enjoy talking to the press. “Publicists and managers will call me and say, ‘I don’t know what you said. I don’t know what you did, but suddenly it’s a 180-degree transformation,’” Pepper says. “My clients aren’t nervous anymore because they no longer feel powerless. They’re in control of their message. They’re actually having fun instead of feeling like talking to the press is a burden or a nightmare. And the press is getting more interesting interviews. It’s win-win for everyone.”
In others words, she’s done exactly what she set out to do: helped her clients find their voice and reinvent themselves. —Tricia Romano