Publicist Rockstars: “Be ready for unfair companies and managers” with John Feins
I had the pleasure of interviewing John Feins. He is an award-winning communications expert and poet and musician by moonlight. He was born in New York City and has worked throughout the United States in a hospital operating room, on a farm, with the U.S. government, and in leading companies in film and entertainment, music, comedy, publishing, advanced manufacturing, high technology, municipal government and now Meow Wolf — the explosive startup changing art and the arts economy for the 21st century, recently voted the #4 best experience in the world. He has placed feature stories in scores of top outlets across the media spectrum.
John serves on the City Of Santa Fe Economic Development Advisory Committee and Economic Development Review Committee as well as The New Mexico Hospitality Association Board Of Directors. He has always taken positions on the front lines of creative rights and attainment and has worked and associated with a deep range of artists including William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg — for whom he was executive assistant — Harry Smith, Hakim Bey, Harold Norse, Andre de Toth, Hunter S. Thompson, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, The Band and hundreds more. He routinely volunteers services for non-profit and social causes and recently was named New Mexico Tourism Professional Of The Year, a top honor in the state’s #1 industry.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In the freewheeling ’90s emigrated Santa Fe for the fool’s glow of Tinseltown but despite the big success, missed The City Different daily and felt fated to return. That portal opened several years ago and I rode back into town with a couple of guitars, a crate of books, and a duffel bag of clothes despite no longer knowing a soul. That’s how compelling it was to hark back.
The city had just elected a progressive young mayor who’d appointed a new director for a tourism department that had been languishing for years. He wisely converted the publicist contractor position into a full-time, in-house role. I nearly didn’t apply, reasoning that for one I had no publicity background, for two I was just off the boat, and for three, surely it would go to someone politically connected.
As Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” I won the job after an intense runoff, a second writing test due overnight on no notice. Hit the ground galloping and took the city from six million in yearly earned media to 40M+ while racking dozens of national and international awards.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
One hectic Friday afternoon got word that a network’s online outlet was looking for CEOs to comment on a Supreme Court ruling. Pitched the reporter, who asked how fast we could comment. Tracked down boss, briefed him on SCOTUS, reconnected with reporter and lo and behold we scored the lede.
Piece received a few hits of decent syndication, mission def accomplished, but then the kicker: a major metro paper does a weekly roundup of notable quotes and boss ends up in group including the current U.S. President, a former President, the U.N. Ambassador, a U.S. Representative, an NBA Head Coach, and others.
On the one hand, you might spend an entire career or three and not place someone in the company of a sitting U.S. president, but on the other hand, if you are observant and willful, you might achieve anything at any time.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Very beginning of work life, one morning spilled coffee on a few art mockups that had just shipped in. Was horrified and began clean up. Sure enough, the most messed one was the one a manager required right away. Foolishly pretended not to know the whereabouts. Eventually had to fess up of course and turned out the manager couldn’t have cared less about the stain, he just needed to get to work.
Two lessons: always tell the truth, no matter what — always and every time — and coffee is an overrated productivity drug that depletes adrenals, causes afternoon crashes, carbo-loading, and vicious cycles, is a severe diuretic, and tends to hover precipitously over papers and technology far worth what it takes to train to dominate the day naturally.
How did you scale your business to profitability? How long did it take? Please share the steps you took.
Meow Wolf was profitable in a year. We stayed DIY all the way, no outside agencies, kept spray-and-pray pricey print ads to a minimum and used our own social media channels along with hospitality community relations to drive awareness and word of mouth. Worked closely with the city tourism department and generated reams of far-reaching earned media. To boost your press raves on social is an ace.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Releasing a feature film in fifty states, fixing for the world’s first artist-driven dark ride, and opening massive new immersive installations in Las Vegas, Denver, and Washington, D.C. with many more major metros to come.
Based on your personal experience, what advice would you give to young people considering a career in PR?
Spend a year working for a media outlet as a reporter or better, an editor. Nothing could be more irreplaceable to your success. Cut out spin, parroted or knee-jerk words and phrases, passive voice, and that limp trend of leading with a modifier. Avoid extraneous jive and don’t “hope this email finds you well.” Emails don’t find and the first way to gain respect is not to waste a moment. Be curious and read everything. Only pitch if you really believe it, remember you aren’t in sales and don’t comport yourself as a babbly pr flack.
You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?
Not cool when the first words out of anyone’s mouth are “What do you do?” This is a personal question that should arise way later in acquaintance. To inquire right off signals little else than what if anything are you worth to me? If you’re genuinely interested in other human beings and aim to give more than receive, you’ll naturally become one in a strong network. Just meet people and remember that looks and demeanor can really be deceiving.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
So many, a whole discussion. If I Knew Then What I Know Now by Richard Edler codifies high-quality knowledge from a wide variety of highly successful leaders. Drink deeply of wisdom. Avoid the toil of a decade-plus in The School of Hard Knocks and save yourself a whole lotta mess. Read ancient Greeks, the Bhagavad Gita, Willy The Shakes et al. Human nature never changes and all the rarified insights are mapped out in the classics.
Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
A new political party that does not constrain life to a cage of either/or, polarized propositions: left v. right, liberal v. conservative, Democrat v. Republican, urban v. rural, dog c. cat. Why would you let yourself be defined that way?
We have to elect on experience and not identity, looks or talk. Talk is cheap and looks are skin deep. A new party founded on informed, evolving policy — not ideology — that treasures and protects our natural resources, minimize taxes and spending, champions education and young people’s future, applies law equally to all, ends corporate welfare and personhood, stays faithful to the constitution and lets the rest be decided by the states would be the ultimate good for the country and for the people of earth too.
A third party doesn’t have to win, just make a small dent in the center to shake up all sides.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Don’t let all your hard earned income go to purchase someone else’s property and create someone else’s fortune. Ownership is power, at work and at home. Look at the market and housing charts. Is all there. FIRE movement is onto something. Max out your 401(k) each year.
- At first, don’t think about money — no matter your debt or anything. The world is bigger than you know and nothing is more important than to find your industry and your place in it. Survey widely, try things on for size, find your scene, pinpoint an evolved and humane company and stand by it. Don’t leave for money and beware large corporations, dodgy industries and most of all squares. Look carefully before you leap.
- Be ready for unfair companies and managers. A natural team player can’t conceive of the narcissism, control freakery, incompetence and backstabbing out there — but good can defeat evil. Live by a code, don’t fish off the company pier and believe half of what you see and none of what you hear. Get it in writing and always have your own wheels.
- Conserve your time and energy and don’t waste so much on entertainment, social media, fads and fleeting pleasures. Take the initiative to ensure your body and mind are attained and attuned to the highest degree. After that, spend time volunteering and making a difference. Then you can fool around. As Terence McKenna famously proclaimed, “Culture is not your friend.” Realize that.
- You have to work harder than everyone else, and your integrity has to remain unassailable, but you can become trapped into late nights, email at all hours, weekends, holidays, all of it. You’ll look and feel like Superman — in the moment — but you only go around once or twice and time speeds up each year. Be in charge. Take risks, have a magic bag of chosen crafts, and while you can: live a little!