By Julie Livingston
One could say that a career in public relations was literally “written in the stars” for Cindi Berger, Chairman and CEO, PMK*BNC Public Relations & Marketing, as she had an early affinity for everything pop culture. “Growing up just north of New York City, I loved going to the movies and seeing Broadway shows. They were my passion and favorite activity,” she says. “I always sensed that entertainment was a direction. I was going to take but it was not until I had the opportunity to study abroad, in my junior year at Ithaca College, and went to the Cannes Film Festival that it all came together.”
After graduation, she read an article in Cosmopolitan about celebrity publicists, which cited the leading agencies, PMK, Rogers & Cowan and Mahoney & Wasserman (now defunct). “I said to my friend, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ” The Rockland County native dropped off her resume at PMK, which at the time had a small NYC office, and was hired as receptionist. She quickly worked her way up the ranks to assistant, then publicist and finally partner. When CEO Pat Kingsley relinquished the top spot in 2007, Cindi became co-CEO with Simon Halls, and in January 2010 was named Chairman and CEO of PMK*BNC.
Over the course of her 20+ years in the business, Cindi has worked with A-list celebrities such as Barbara Walters, Rosie O’Donnell, Jessica Simpson, The Dixie Chicks, Harry Connick, Jr , Mariah Carey, John Legend, Billy Crystal and Robert Redford, among many others, including her newest client, Simon Cowell and the FOX reality series “The X Factor.” She helps them handle their overall image, the pressures of stardom and, when needed, guides them through potentially damaging situations. She recalled when in 2006 The Dixie Chicks were shunned by the public after making anti-Bush administration remarks. Cindi helped them through the crisis and the band went on to win five top Grammy Awards. “That moment was a tremendous feeling of pride for me,” she explains.
Among her mentors, Cindi cites PMK alumni Leslee Dart and Lois Smith — both former Matrix winners. In turn, she mentors others: “Since I started at PMK as a receptionist, I am cognizant about promoting deserving individuals from within our company. There have been a number of assistants who have gone on to do great work.” Creating a work environment where all employees can ask questions is critical as well. “In every executive, one must hope that there’s a bit of a teacher inside who has the patience to explain and navigate others through muddy and deep waters,” she points out. With many “aha” moments in her career, Cindi admits there are a few standouts. These include getting two unprecedented Time covers for the Dixie Chicks in the same month and the first Time cover featuring “Thelma and Louise” co-stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. “Initially, the film didn’t have a lot of traction or support,” she admits, “but I knew if ever there was going to be a female empowerment moment, that film would inspire it.”
She adds that “the first time I attended the full blown awards circuit — the Cannes Film Festival, Golden Globes, Academy Awards, the Grammys and the Tony Awards — you look around and have that sense of awe. Even in the midst of frenetic madness and pressure, you have to step out of yourself and appreciate the privilege of working with such talented individuals. ”
Still, winning a Matrix Award is incredibly meaningful to Cindi. She has attended the Matrix Awards luncheon with clients, but never expected to receive one herself. “It has always been inspiring to hear the stories of women rising to the pinnacle of their careers. I would always take it to heart because they were such remarkable leaders,” she admits. “The day that I was told I won the Matrix Award, I was leaving for the Toronto Film Festival. I was stunned, humbled and unbelievably honored.”
The public relations and marketing landscape has changed a lot since Cindi joined PMK. She says that social media have made it more challenging: “Communication takes place in real time now. You have to be fast on your feet but not so fast that you are going to trip up. Understanding the importance and quality of communication, in addition to mastering social etiquette, is more important than ever before.” Good advice indeed.