A former journalist for publications such as the Chicago Tribune‘s Red Eye, Source Magazine, XXL Magazine and N’DIGO to name a few, Briahna Gatlin is the owner of Swank Public Relations, a customized PR agency and boutique that offers clients a variety of services including public relations, creative branding and marketing, ingénues, resources and partnership building, client relations and social media awareness.
In just a few years, the Columbia College Chicago graduate has amassed an impressive client list that includes artists such as Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def, and Chrisette Michele, as well as brands like Def Jam Records, Moet Hennessy, and Complex Magazine.
N’DIGO recently sat down with Gatlin, our former intern way back when, to learn more about her background and the origins of Swank PR.
What did you dream of being while growing up?
I dreamed about being a singer like Whitney Houston, but as I grew into adulthood, I knew I wanted to connect with people. I had no idea I would be in public relations, though. Oprah Winfrey was my model of a successful woman in media and that’s whom I’ve looked to as the epitome of achievement.
How did you get your start in the music business?
I started in the music business while attending Columbia College Chicago in my student organization called C.U.M.A. (Columbia Urban Music Association). Although I was a magazine journalism major in school, that is where I found my passion for the entertainment industry and I decided to combine the two passions. After serving two terms as the president of C.U.M.A, I went to New York City after accepting an internship for VIBE Magazine and that’s where I got an up close and personal experience in working in journalism and the music business.
After graduating from Columbia, I headed back to NYC to freelance and attempted to survive the blues of hustling, but there was lots of competition. I humbly came back to Chicago and a dear friend named Michael “Blu” Harris, who worked at VIBE while I interned there, was now at Source Magazine. Blu began inquiring about Chicago music and I realized it would be wise for me to be the connect in my city rather than to compete with everyone. I began writing for Source Magazine shortly after and the rest is history.
Tell us about Swank Public Relations and how it began.
Swank PR is a full public relations agency that caters to a bevy of clients in various fields throughout the entertainment industry. We pride ourselves on looking for new and innovative ways to promote our clients while creating pioneers, trendsetters and a legacy to be proud of.
I use to work with True Star Magazine, when it started as a newsletter. I became the editorial director in its infant stages and transitioned it to a magazine. At True Star, there were three original founders including myself, but there was a split and that’s where and how Swank Publishing began.
After working side by side with my business partner at Swank, we took separate paths. I decided to continue Swank Publishing and she went in a different direction. With the many obstacles and trials, I can honestly say it was an uncomfortable, yet pleasant ride for a long time, but worth every moment.
What are some of the obstacles and challenges you’ve encountered while running Swank PR?
I have faced a number of obstacles, including getting appropriate funding to run my business, dealing with lots of fair-weather clients, and the turn around of working with up and coming artists in the music business. Sometimes artists run out of their budgets and can’t afford to pay.
There are times when I have to play all roles in my company from the admin to the writer to the publicist and sometimes even the janitor! Trying to keep the business afloat is always the biggest struggle, however the freedom of being your own boss is amazing. Being a woman in my industry also plays a major role in the struggle of securing certain clientele, including major corporate brands.
What are your thoughts on the Chicago hip hop scene and how it can improve?
The Chicago hip hop scene stems from its roots. We have to support each other and be humble in our interactions. Many older artists didn’t reach back to the younger generation of artists and now they are becoming successful without the support of them.
If everyone would realize the power of the city and that there is a bigger picture, then we can create an amazing hub for not only music, but a full creative environment for many more great artists to thrive. It’s a dream that I’m afraid will never come true, but we are one of the strongest cities and if we knew our strength, we would take over.
What have you learned from a mentor and what is the importance of having a mentor?
I’ve learned from my many mentors – Louis Cutler, Stevie Williams (DGK, AYC, Supra), Bettyn Sherrod – to be creative with your resources, always develop partnerships, and to always value the importance of those partnerships. Also, don’t sweat the small things, but instead look at the bigger picture. Always be patient and think before I make a decision.
What are three principals you try to abide by in business?
1. Be a person of your word; integrity and your reputation are everything. 2. Never burn bridges. 3. Always treat everyone equal; you never know who they will become and when you may need that person.
Best piece of advice you’d give to aspiring public relations professionals?
To my aspiring PR professionals, I’d say be patient. Be careful who you work with and be sure to find your resources creatively. Your contacts are your livelihood; those are like gold to any publicist. Always be creative in pitching your clients, find unconventional ways.
What are some things people would be surprised to know about you?
I studied journalism at Oxford University in London, England for a summer, where I got a chance to meet Nelson Mandela. I love to cook and decorate as a way to relax, and thrifting and traveling are my favorite hobbies.
Favorite quote or affirmation?
Become a better you than you were yesterday. Everyday we wake up is another opportunity to become our best selves.
What’s next for Briahna Gatling? Goals? Projects? Dreams?
We have some cool event ventures with a few advertising agencies in the pipeline. We are also working on expanding the agency to include booking and brand management. We’re also looking to venture into the sports world, as well, and eventually expand Swank overseas.
(For more information, visit www.swankpublishing.com.)