“Media WHA-?” Daniel and Steven Shehori demystify the art of self-promotion

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Daniel & Steven Shehori, with ‘Media Whore’ T-shirt (photo: Steven Shehori)

A few days ago, I got an email asking if I review books. I answered that I do not (at this point). What I mostly do is profile people and live productions. As it happens, Daniel Shehori and Steven Shehori wrote a book last September called Media Whore: A Shockingly Simple Guide to Becoming Your Own Kick-Ass Publicist. Since then (and lucky for me), many people have reviewed it – almost all in glowing terms. (In brief, yes, it is as “kick-ass” as the subtitle claims it to be.) So thanks to these reviewers, I have a clear path to what I like to do: focus on the people behind, and at the heart of, Media Whore.

The first thing I can tell you after meeting Daniel and e-meeting his Los Angeles-based brother Steven, is that their talents run vast and deep. During our conversations, these talents emerged piecemeal, one disparate bit at a time, provoking insightful and ultra-literate reactions, such as, “Huh!” and “oh, that was you?”. To start, they are comedians, writers, directors and producers with a slew of credits. They have 15 Canadian Comedy Award nominations – and 3 wins – between them, plus 3 Gemini Award nominations and a Dora Award nomination. In addition to writing for several national television programs, they have also produced live comedy shows, award shows, and (most laudably, according to my children) they wrote and directed Stephen Harper: the Musical, which enjoyed a successful run on The Second City Mainstage in Toronto. Give them a Google, and see what else turns up!

This gradual reveal of accomplishments is, in part, because they are humble. And it is because, well, they are prolific and productive. They are also, it must be noted, prudent. As the owners of Sweat Equity Publicity, they are in the business of promoting people. Shoehorning themselves into the paid promotion of others for a slice of the spotlight would make them unethical, unprofessional and (as they would put it) “jerks.” And this, they emphatically are not. Instead, they are generous, forthcoming and tactically brilliant. And they have compiled their considerable business acumen (self-taught and implemented first in Toronto through their successful PR business), in the above-named compact volume for the world to leverage.

While it might seem like they have fingers in many disparate pies, the truth is that their varied skills combine  seamlessly (and tastily) in their book. Daniel maintains that the first reason for writing it was creative, and the second was to reduce their PR workload. In Steven’s words, “We’ve accrued a lot of publicity knowledge over the years, and we felt it’d be kind of miserly not to get it into the hands of regular people looking to promote something they’re passionate about. We honestly think this should be public knowledge, and not just in the hands of publicists like ourselves.” Ironically, the positive reception accorded to Media Whore has resulted in more requests for Sweat Equity Publicity’s help than ever . . . which actually proves that people who are passionate to publicize their “things” have needed such a guide all along. “A lot of creative people are intimidated at the idea of self-promotion because there’s an administrative component to it. This is the furthest thing from the truth,” Steven insists. “If you’re deficient in certain areas, like writing or formatting a press release, you’ve got a ton of friends who’ll be happy to help you. Unless, you know, you’re a total jerk.” (Just in case, and to prove how straightforward this is, he provides a sample press release in the book that is sequenced and labelled, like an easy-to-follow science diagram.)

Photo courtesy of Daniel and Steven Shehori, Sweat Equity Publicity

Daniel wanted specifically to demonstrate that obtaining media attention is easier than most people think – and that people in the media would rather hear about a property from the creator, than a third party hired to talk about it. But despite the book’s claim to be “a shockingly simple guide,” it is more causerie than manual. The tone is friendly without condescension, and this voice helps to prompt a genuine desire to try implementing the authors’ advice. Along the way, Daniel and Steven’s comedic writing chops find fertile ground, starting with Daniel’s summation of people unmoved by news stories about unfortunate dogs in Chapter 1 (“These people are called jerks.”) and running all the way up to the end summary of the book’s purpose in “different languages…written in English”. The information in between is systematic and punctuated with tried-and-true examples, couched in humour and accompanied by pertinent and entertaining anecdotes. The book is at once engrossing, practical and funny.

Even more importantly, the book proves Daniel’s point that “the pursuit of media attention can help you step up your personal standards on what you are doing. Meaning [that] if I want someone to come review my play, I better have something worth reviewing!” The Shehori brothers know many people (and not just Canadians) who have had “real notable success after reading the book” (though they are circumspect about providing details without consent). Media Whore comes from Canada, but is meant to resonate with all human beings,” says Daniel. “If the information in this book is true, then it will indeed resonate with people. It makes me happy when people try this information in other parts of the world.”

The writing makes it obvious that the brothers have a genuine passion for their project, and that they had a tremendous amount of fun crafting it. “We publicists are paid to be enthusiastic about our clients’ projects,” Steven observes. “Sometimes this can be a deterrent, since certain media contacts will automatically just assume we’re full of hot air. When you’re promoting your own project and are really excited about it, the fun and enthusiasm come across as a lot more real and legitimate – because they are. The media definitely picks up on this.” Daniel concurs that a “sense of fun and passion is a very big part” of all of this. “Most of it, really,” he notes. “How often have you read a book or watched a movie because someone you knew was so excited talking about it that you had to check it out yourself? You buy into other people’s excitement and fun.” As one example, he relates that his friend radio/TV host and film critic Richard Crouse recently interviewed a guest who makes tea. He “could care less” about the tea . . . but the woman’s passion for it compelled him to talk to her.

My 14-year-old son, who has a passion for his personal YouTube channel, was intrigued by Media Whore (and by the possibility it could give him some great ideas). But he was also a bit concerned about its suitability, given its provocative title. How would Daniel and Steven position the book to a young teen like my son . . . or even a pre-teen? “The provocative title is just that,” avers Daniel. “I describe myself as the Media Whore, and as stated in the book, I believe all words are neutral until you give meaning to them.” He maintains that there is a lot of valuable information in this book for a “young upstart youtuber,” so no, he should not judge this book exclusively by its title: “If a man named ‘Jerk-face’ worked as a cobbler for 40 years, you could still learn a lot about making shoes from the man with the silly name, if you are willing to get past his title.” (Buoyed by this explanation, my son has begun reading the book, only to get stuck in the early chapters, where the commentary makes him laugh so hard that he has to put down the book. Then he goes back, re-reads and pursues it a bit further, only to start laughing all over again.)

Steven admits he had a similar delighted reaction the moment Daniel pitched the title. “And – somewhat surprisingly – so did our publisher [Vancouver’s Self-Counsel Press], despite the fact they’ve typically released more conservative fare. Personally, we’d be a bit wary of a publicity manual with a boring title like How To Promote Yourself. Before even reading page one you know the author’s already failed at making their product stand out.” He adds that if it weren’t such a clunky title, the book might be more accurately called “How To Be A Good Media Whore”: someone who can promote their project in “big and captivating ways, while staying on the right side of tasteful, and ensuring they don’t irritate the people they’re pitching to.” The Shehori brothers follow their own advice to a T: “it would be weird if we didn’t,” smiles Steven, and the result is that they have “built genuine relationships over the years with a number of media folks.”

Daniel Shehori, Steven Shehori, circa 1974 (Family Archives)

This network is a well-earned byproduct of their core value: to build and foster relationships. As the book and their communication style make clear, positive relationships are the key to everything! They advise being “persistent and consistent”, but always in balance and with compassion. One building block of “genuine relationships” is word choice: for instance, not twisting words or taking them out of context to serve a purpose. This is a dishonest tactic that will come back to bite! Also, opt for a sincere “thank you” over a cursory “thanks”. And resist the urge to follow up with such persistence that you become a pest. Finally, learn to respond, rather than react, to an unfavourable situation. (They drive this point home with a cogent personal example of the aftermath of receiving a bad performance review and deciding not to lash out at the reviewer.) Most important of all, they emphasize that communication is as much about your current project as it is about your next one . . . maybe even more so. And this is why a good relationship now is precious, for it will yield dividends in the future.    

Happily, this truth bodes well for me. The growth of SesayArts from monthly blog to e-magazine led directly to me meeting Daniel and Steven. They are approachable and warm – but I’m still curious: why was it worthwhile for them to strike up a relationship with a small player like me? “We strive to treat all media, big and small, with the same high amount of courtesy. Not out of obligation,” Steven assures me, “but because we honestly feel thankful to anyone who expresses an interest in something we’re promoting. That sounds a bit hokey, but it’s honestly true.” Daniel enthusiastically agrees: “You may not have been around as long as the Globe and Mail, but you are still taking the time to focus on other people and shining the light on them. This is greatly appreciated by me and everyone you cover.” He then graciously suggests that in 10 years, SesayArts may even be read by more people than The Globe and Mail, so “I am glad we are friendly now, so you won’t forget about me,” he quips.

Yes, please, to that tantalizing vision of the future! But what might the next 10 years mean for the always-busy Shehori Brothers? “We are still Media Whores with the right projects,” Daniel offers. The volume of media coverage they obtain – and post on their website – is proof that their method works. And at present, they are once again Media Whores for the Second City Canada . .  and “with great success.” If you are inspired by their example and are looking to follow suit, you can find Media Whore in bookstores worldwide. The teens in my household are full-on lobbying for a revival of Stephen Harper: the Musical – but the Shehoris (while amused) are quick to point that this would require sweeping political changes (and a reverse of Harper’s political retirement) to be relevant. So they should be careful what they wish for! In the immediate term, Doug Ford has taken Ontario provincial office, which might just prompt Daniel and Steven’s creative juices to begin flowing in the direction of an absurdical.

Whatever their next project, we can be confident that they will spread the word in their usual “kick-ass” fashion. Exactly what does this mean? In Steven’s answer lies an affirmation we should all live by, an aspiration we should all try to live up to, and inspiration that we can all draw from – regardless of our skill level as media whores: “‘Kick-ass’ means you’re amazing at something, whereas ‘bad-ass’ means you’re a maverick who plays by their own rules,” explains Steven. “On a good day, I’d like to think you can be both.”

Amen to that, brothers!

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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