Public Relations Tactics

She’s Gone Country: CMA’s Wendy Pearl Shares Communications Insights

November 1, 2011

Wendy Pearl came to work for the Nashville, Tenn.-based Country Music Association in April 2000 as a communications director. She’s moved up the ranks during the past 11 years and now serves as the vice president of corporate communications for the CMA.

“Prior to that, I was a reporter at the Miami Herald — it was actually my first job out of college and the only one I’ll claim officially after college,” she says with a laugh.

Pearl, a native of Florida, attended the University of Miami and has been involved in the music industry since 1991. She’s responsible for all CMA media initiatives including the CMA Music Festival and the CMA Awards.  The 45th CMA Awards will air on Nov. 9 on ABC.

“I come from a journalism background that I think influences a lot of what I do on the PR side,” she says. “But here, my role has a lot to do with coming up with the general strategy and positioning for our core events.”

Tell us about the history of the Country Music Association.

CMA was the first trade association formed to promote a type of music in 1958. We advanced country music around the world.  We have 6,400 members — they represent every state and three-dozen foreign countries now.  And we have what we call our strategic imperatives, which are our core events.

The first one is CMA Music Festival, which happens in June. It’s a four-day music festival that attracts attendees from all over the world. Every major artist in the format has performed there, and it benefits music education. It’s also taped for a three-hour ABC  TV special that airs in the summer.

Our crown jewel is the CMA Awards.  That’s country music’s biggest night.

And our newest  TV property is “CMA Country Christmas,” which tapes the day after the CMA Awards and airs during the holiday season.

In addition, CMA also has oversight of the election and voting for the Country Music Hall of Fame, as well as our charity initiative, which is called Keep the Music Playing, benefitting music education in public schools.

What’s your job like on a day-to-day basis?

It changes every single day, which is what I love about working at CMA. It’s never never dull — coming into the office every day and seeing what’s going to happen is something I look forward to.

How has social media changed communications for the Country Music Association in general and for CMA’s events?

It’s booming for us. It’s completely altered how we approach what we do on a day-to-day basis. [Our team] spends a lot of time thinking about [social media] when we’re looking at positioning for press releases, exclusives that we’re offering [and] how we position space and build relationships through our core events. It influences everything we do on the press side.

We have a robust social base.  We have 800,000 users between Twitter, Facebook and exclusive, which is our regular email communication with our fans.

What draws people to events like the CMA Awards and the CMA Music Festival?

It’s different for both. The awards are the pinnacle of achievement within the format.  They’re industry-voted awards. It’s very much an industry town, and so because we’re based here, it has a completely different feel.  You’ve got every major artist in the audience taking part. We create a week of events leading up to the awards.  A lot of the other performing arts organizations build their award shows around us. So it is a great opportunity for [the] town to celebrate everybody’s achievements from the previous years.

The CMA Music Festival, which happens in June, is different in that it’s meant for the fans. 

And we certainly get fans — 65,000 a day last year, and that’s four days in June.  We sold out our giant Tennessee Titans football stadium for the second time.  They’re coming from every state and 26 foreign countries.

This is a format that embraces and understands the unique relationship between our artists and the fans.

With so many citizen journalists and social media outlets today, how do you decide who gets press credentials and when to comment on criticism? How has that changed the way that you do business?

Identifying and looking for ways to qualify and quantify — it was easy in the old days.  You were able to look at readership and understand where the top 10 newspapers were.  You could look at ratings and see where people were watching television.  You could look at circulation and understand where magazines were headed.

This is such a fluid aspect of our business. It changes daily, and how we monitor and measure is constantly evolving and getting better.

It’s up to us as professionals to be aware of who’s in the marketplace, what their traffic is and where that closely aligns with our goals — whether it’s reaching our business community, potential brands and partner sponsors or consumers directly.

How far in advance do you start planning the awards shows and festivals?

You’re already working on the next round constantly. It never ends.

Are you usually backstage working the whole time, or do you get to watch the show?

I don’t think we’ve seen an awards show in 20 years between [my colleague Scott and I]. No, we’re always backstage. [Laughs.]  There’s a busy backstage media center where the winners are giving their acceptance speeches and taking questions from the press.  That lasts [until] well after the show is over because we have a lot of people on deadlines on the West Coast and artists who aren’t able to come backstage until the conclusion of the show.

Do you have to live in Nashville to work in country music?

There are a lot of terrific publicists who live in New York and Los Angeles who work with country talent. I prefer to live here just because this is such a vibrant, interesting community and it’s small.

When you consider that most of the industry is contained within 10 square blocks here in our little Music Row community, you can get out and see your colleagues and peers, and run into people that you work with all the time at lunch and events.  You can have that kind of interaction if you’re based here. But I don’t think you have to live here to work with country artists.

What advice do you have for other PR pros who might be looking to go into arts and entertainment public relations as a career?

The first thing I would tell them to do is volunteer and see if you like [the work] onsite on the ground. It’s a different kind of environment than you would expect. I spend a lot of time on luxurious tour buses — let me put it that way.  We’ve got headsets and sneakers and we’re running from place to place, 90-miles an hour. 
Volunteer first and see if it’s something you enjoy.  Then, if it is, start building those relationships within our community and make people aware of your interest.

What trends do you see on the horizon for the PR profession?

The social nets and digital are really changing the way we do business and will continue to change the way we do business.

What is the best part of your job?

The people I get to work with. I come into work and laugh at least a dozen times during the course of the day with people who are entertaining in their own right. I’ve often joked that if somebody had a camera on us, it would be one hell of a show!

Getting to know… Wendy Pearl

What is your favorite place to travel?

What’s the best career advice that you’ve ever received?
Do what you love and the money will follow.

Who is your favorite musician?
Alison Krauss

What’s your favorite thing about living in Nashville?
The people and fall  —  I love fall in Nashville,especially  coming  from South Florida. I love the changing leaves.

News Editor Amy Jacques interviewed Wendy Pearl for this month’s member profile.

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


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