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PR Maven Kristen Foster on Handling Whitney Houston's Death, New Kids' Reunion and More

Kristen Foster
Christopher Patey

"Now we're our own A&R department," says Foster, photographed Dec. 2 at the PMK*BNC office in West Hollywood. "We listen to demos and look at YouTube clips and ask if there's star potential or a story we can tell."

Before heading to her office at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood every morning, Kristen Foster, executive vp and head of the music department for communications and marketing firm PMK*BNC, clears her head by catching some waves. "I love surfing more than anything," says the New Jersey native, who first learned to hang ten on vacation in Costa Rica a decade ago.

No wonder: It might be the only solitude she gets all day. Since joining PMK*BNC in 2007 -- first in New York and, since 2011, in Los Angeles -- Foster has overseen press for such giants as Eric Clapton, Jeff Lynne, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Harry Connick Jr., as well as newcomers like Twenty One Pilots, Austin Mahone and Fifth Harmony. Other high-profile clients include Live Nation, AEG, the Dave Grohl-fronted projects Sound City and Sonic Highways (with Nasty Little Man's Steve Martin) and John Mayer and Dead & Company, who play Los Angeles' Forum on Dec. 30 and 31. "Kristen has proven herself to be a great leader and a visionary strategist," says PMK*BNC co-chairman/CEO Cindi Berger.

Foster talked to Billboard about managing her seven-person department, press in the digital age and working with Whitney Houston, R. Kelly and Adele Dazeem, aka Idina Menzel.

It's Grammy season. What's the last thing you check before a client steps onto the red carpet?

That their outfit is put together, they don't have lipstick or spinach on their teeth, that kind of thing. It's a basic physical check because those photos run everywhere. I was just at a carpet with Jennifer Nettles and had to give her a once-over to make sure her dress, which was a lower cut, covered everything. As far as the content, we will have gone over key messages and reminders before they get out of the car.

The Al Merrick longboard was a gift from pro surfer Timmy Curran after the launch of his album Versus. Foster often surfs with Curran, primarily in Ventura County, Calif. "If you're going to learn to surf, learn from a pro!" says Foster. (Christopher Patey)

What was the thinking behind the firm's moves into touring PR?

It's reflective of what's going on with our artists who make their money in touring and maybe less so in recorded music. Live entertainment is something we want to be a part of.

How do you determine who to take on as a client?

It used to be the record label would call and say, "hey we've got this new artist and we're a little short staffed, maybe we need you to help out" or whatever it may be. There was some barrier to entry that had happened before you got to us. Now with the internet, everything has changed. I find that we're our own A&R department. We are listening to demo tapes and looking at YouTube clips. I'll ask our staff, "do you think this person has star potential or qualities that we could wrap a campaign around or a story that we can tell?"

Your roster includes John Mayer, an early Twitter adopter, and many younger acts who grew up in the social media age. How do you advise them on discretion?

No different than what I would have said a decade ago when social media didn't exist: If you do not want to see it on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper, don't say it, don't post it, don't do it.

You had to confirm Whitney Houston's death the night of Clive Davis' 2012 Grammy party. What was on your mind then?

I am here to do a job. The greatest way to honor her and help [members of Houston's] family was to get them through that time. Certainly there came a time when I got home and I had some private moments to reflect and I dealt with my own sense of grief about it, but I was also able to do my job.

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R. Kelly was a client for years. How did you deal with writers who couldn't get past his alleged sexual misconduct?

By knowing a journalist's sensibilities in any given direction. We had to figure out who were the champions and who were the haters. And he certainly has both.

How did you handle John Travolta mangling Idina Menzel's name at the 2014 Oscars?

Publicity is a reflection of the artist. She has a wonderful spirit and was laughing as she came offstage, so our campaign had a sense of humor about it. A year later, they walked out arm in arm [at the Oscars].

When is the last time your phone rang at 2 a.m. and you had to put out a fire?

I will decline to say who it was for and what it was for but probably two months ago. It doesn't happen that often but certainly when it rings in the  middle of the night you know it's something significant. I think it happens more so in our department when we have international touring clients. And if you are touring in Shanghai or Tokyo it's business hours for them, it just happens to be the middle of the night for me.

How do you decide whether to have an artist break news via Twitter or send out a press release?

We have artists who have millions of followers so breaking news via those millions of followers is a very legitimate avenue. Fall Out Boy just launched a remix album; that is something where we could go direct to the fans [and] absolutely announce that through their social media. But if you have an artist that doesn't have as many followers, you're probably going to be looking towards a Billboard or a Rolling Stone or a news outlet that has those eyeballs. Generally speaking, you are looking for the most amount of eyeballs possible to launch something.

The public loves it when celebrities behave badly. Will you take a client if he or she exhibits bad behavior? 

If that's a person who is actively in the process of changing their behavior and wants to change their story that's out there, great, we can be part of the team that helps with that.  If they are not willing or interested in changing their behavior that may be a conversation where we say this just isn't a right fit for us.

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How do you deal with a client's unrealistic expectations about what press you can deliver?

Unrealistic expectations are a huge challenge of this job. We can, as publicists, educate our clients: If you want to be on the cover of GQ, have you read GQ? And I don't mean that in a speaking-down-to-you way, but are you following what they're covering? 

What is the best rumor you have ever heard about one of your clients?

Everyday we could talk about people that are dating someone or are pregnant. And then that's in the tabloids and then shockingly nine months later they're not having a baby. It's always the basics.

Can you give an example of an effective info leak?

We took on New Kids on the Block [in 2008]. Their manager Jared Paul said, "We know the fans are out there, but are they really out there?" So we leaked to People that they might be reuniting and it crashed the servers on a Friday night. We said, "All right. This is going to work." 

Do you ever turn off your phone?

No. Never. 

What's the longest you go without checking your email? 

I can probably make it through a movie without checking. It's horrible to have a dinner with me. Having dinner with me is not a fulfilling experience [laughs].

A version of this story was originally published in the Dec. 19 issue of Billboard.

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