Suset Laboy Pérez is a public relations professional in Brooklyn. Her job is to share her clients’ stories. This interview is about her story. She grew up in Puerto Rico. She has a doctorate in Latin American Studies. She runs Lalaboy PR with her sister, Maria. She also runs A Little Awareness, a coaching program that helps others beat the hustle. Are you ready to hear from an intelligent woman with a wealth of knowledge? She works closely with brands to help them stretch and grow, and she does the same for individuals. It’s an honor to present here a glimpse into her thinking and doing.
Q. You have a Ph.D. What’s your area of academic expertise and how did you go from academia to PR?
A. One of the connecting threads in my life has always been a passion for writing and for understanding human behavior. When I originally went into academia, I went in with some specific questions about my culture and history. So my expertise focuses on Latin American Studies, through a lens of Global History (which allowed me to study the U.S., Britain, and Japan as empires). My more general focus was issues of race, gender, and sexuality, and the criminalization of colonial subjects. Wow, that’s a mouthful.
And yes, I apply all the skills I learned as a researcher, writer, thinker to public relations, especially when our focus is on elevating the voices of creatives and brands of color.
Q. Who owns the brand story? Who should own it?
A. Companies and brands tend to believe they own the brand story. In reality, everyone owns it, as it should be. A brand exists in the conversation between the company/organization behind it and the audience it serves, and that audience includes its employees.
At some point in time, brands had more control over the story, but that’s no longer the case. It hasn’t been the case for decades so it behooves all brands to really grasp that the brand story is shaped by a collective.
Sure, the brand itself is part of that collective and has the onus on upholding what it promises to stand for, but it’s unhelpful to think you can control the entire story. And I think that is wonderful. Brands now have such a beautiful and liberating opportunity to connect more deeply and with more transparency with their audience.
Q. What is the core offering of Lalaboy PR?
A. We offer integrated communications services to future-forward projects, people, and brands inventing a more inclusive and creative world. We work mainly with arts and culture brands and organizations, and see our communications work as a tool for community building, change, and social impact. We exist to help amplify the voices of Latinxs and other minority groups (a term we hate because it is not accurate).
Q. What qualities do you find in an ideal client?
A. There are many attributes we look for in an ideal client, but ultimately they boil down to integrity and openness. A strong commitment to quality and collaboration; to the long-game and strategy; willingness to listen to us and others; and respect for their boundaries and ours.
Q. Do you fire clients? Why and how?
We are very clear in what we will do and won’t do; In the beginning, it wasn’t that way and we had a client curse out one of our employees. It was not pleasant and prompted us to get very clear with who we would and wouldn’t work with. We actually have a list of the kind of clients we will and won’t work with. We have a very strong brand and clear values that we discuss often. Through the years, these values have helped us filter potential clients, but when one gets past these filters, we have had zero issues firing them (nicely and respectfully, of course).
Q. Which industry or industries are in the greatest need of a makeover? Are there companies you will not represent?
A. The academic in me keeps me from making a definite assertion of what industries need a makeover. What I will say, however, is that all industries would be served by being always in beta mode, consistently going for it, expecting and making errors, assessing and reassessing their approach, and making improvements. This is where rapid learning and growth happens. We won’t represent companies that don’t align with our values (Authenticity, Creativity, Fearlessness, Excellence, Passion, Playfulness, Alternative, Impact/Change, Inclusiveness).
Q. How much pressure do you feel to succeed…as a woman, a Puerto Rican, a New Yorker, a person with goals?
A. I used to feel immense pressure, all the time, to succeed. I have always felt immense pressure to succeed because it feels like your family depends on your success, and later your community. I’ve spent my life, and I think many people can sympathize with this, jumping through hoops to achieve some socially acceptable construct of what it means to be successful. I graduated with top honors from high school, I’m Ivy League-educated, have a doctorate degree that I finished very conscious of the fact that only 1% of Latinos have advanced degrees. So for the first half of my life, I have been the poster child for “person pressured to succeed”.
That has changed immensely in the past decade. Nowadays, while I still strive for success, it is defined on my terms. I see the process more as a game I get to build than a game society imposes on me.
Q. What was the last best book you read?
A. I just finished The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while now, and it was so worth it. It is a hilarious, heartbreaking, and timely (even though it came out a few years ago) look at race relations in the United States. It is uncomfortable, nuanced, complex, and just so beautifully written. If you haven’t read it, you must.
Q. How did you become interested in public relations as a career path?
I always like to say that PR found me, not the other way around. That said, when I was in college I always aspired to go into a career in advertising or journalism. Unfortunately, as a Latina who would hold four jobs at a time to get through my Ivy League studies, I could not afford to go into the kinds of unpaid internships that would launch me into either of these paths upon graduation.
So I went into academia, which also interested me deeply. Oddly enough, I was finishing my dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh when my sister, Maria who is an architect by trade, was in NYC and started doing public relations for beauty experts during Fashion Week. She recruited me to support her with all things copy related. Initially, we both did it for fun, to get some goodie bags and get to go backstage during NYFW. But at some point, we realized we were getting so much business and loving it. That’s how Lalaboy was born.
Q. There are plenty of married couples running boutique firms. What’s it like to work closely with your sister?
I always like to joke that if my sister and I had gone into communications a decade earlier, we would not have lasted. And in some sense, it is true. During our 20s we worked hard on our personal development and relationship and used those tools to make the business flow. That work really helps us still today.
Our roles are very clear and different in our company. We function as a Duplo in an agency, where she manages all things design and visual; and I manage all things copywriting and research. That helps immensely. I don’t think we would have been able to succeed as a company otherwise. I have an incredible relationship with my sister and love working with my best friend. It’s a riot. And at the same time, we both recognize that it takes work and commitment to the business and to our relationship to have such a strong relationship.
Q. Tell us more about your side hustle—A Little Awareness?
It is funny that you frame the question in that way because my other venture–not side hustle–is all about empowering ambitious women to quit, nay kill, the hustle.
So whenever I hear the word “hustle” I cringe.
We live in a world that romanticizes being busy and working until we drop even when consistent research shows that doing so is actually so detrimental not only to productivity but also to our health.
I grew up paying homage to the cult of busy and it took a tumor diagnosis, a month before my wedding, just as Hurricane Maria was ravaging my native island of Puerto Rico to push me to transform my relationship to busy and overwork. It is a continuous process because we are so conditioned–it feels so irresponsible to stop–but stopping, resting, really listening to your internal compass actually is the healthiest path. So now I help others transform their own relationship to this pernicious mentality and carve a life of ease instead.
Q. I like that. How do you change the game so more people win?
There’s no panacea for breaking the hustle and each individual is different. In my practice — I use coaching (I trained with Martha Beck), movement, and breathwork (I am certified as a yoga instructor) to help people at an individual level transform their relationship to work, and particularly overwork. While I work with individuals to shift minds and also actions, it behooves us all to end this obsession with the hustle. We live in a society that encourages people to base their identity on their work, how much they produce, and how much they do. This is particularly toxic for historically oppressed and ignored communities as it creates this myth that hard work, extra hard work, leads to success and riches, ignoring the real inequities that lead some individuals and communities to succeed over others. The reality is that privilege, access to wealth, knowledge, education, the right people, simple sense of security, among many others, matter more to someone’s success than hard work.
Q. What was it like growing up in Puerto Rico?
Growing up in Puerto Rico was fantastic and I would say also pretty normal. I grew up in the capital of Puerto Rico, San Juan, a pretty interesting city that bears the traces of the Spanish and U.S. colonization (the whole island does). My father’s family and my maternal grandmother were from Ponce, and I also spent a lot of time there.
I grew up watching Saved by the Bell in English and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air dubbed into Spanish. I celebrate Christmas and el Día de Reyes and grew up in quite a patriarchal society with a mother who was one of the few women in her law class and a father and grandfather who had no issues cooking. So, I grew up in a great contradiction and loved every minute of it (which is not to say that life was peaches and cream).
The thing to remember is that my upbringing felt banal and normal while I was knee-deep in it. Fish don’t really know they are in water. It’s not until you step out from your home that you can see it a little bit more clearly.
When I moved to the mainland, people used to comment on how exotic it must have been to grow up on a tropical island. I never understood that comment because what they saw as a tropical island, I saw as just my daily existence.
Q. Will Puerto Rico become a state in this decade? What is the major impediment and how can you leverage PR to impact the debate?
That’s an interesting way of framing this question because I think there is a misunderstanding in the United States, even amongst progressives, or actually particularly amongst progressives, that the just solution for all the island’s ailments is for it to achieve statehood. The media has run with this angle, which is not fully accurate.
While there are plenty of Puerto Ricans who aspire to statehood, many others seek to maintain the status quo and a few support independence.
I am all for self-determination. Let the citizens of the island decide. Don’t impose your view, which is equally as colonizing, even if you think the view is benevolent. In many ways, this conversation around the status of the island has really hampered its progress and it needs to be resolved, but I am equally interested in resolving the socio-economic problems that affect the island daily.
A conversation around Puerto Rico needs to take into account the unequal, colonial dynamic between the United States and the island that spans more than a century; it needs to recognize the complexities of the status question and the real way both the diaspora and people living on the island are affected not only by that relationship but many other factors.
PR–as in public relations–has the power to educate the media in those complexities. Are they doing it? Are they listening? We sure are doing our part, and I am eternally hopeful that others are as well.
Q. What role do you and all PR pros have in advancing media literacy?
What is so wonderful about the internet–the democratization of content creation–makes media literacy more important than ever; and I think PR pros both in a professional and personal capacity have a key role to play in advancing media literacy. At a personal level, educate all around you on media awareness, research, and fact-checking, as well as the importance of chasing and upholding facts/the truth. At a professional level, we need to work more than ever with integrity in supporting the creation of credible and accurate news; as well as supporting, financially and with our expertise, the dissemination of media literacy.
Q. Has the PR landscape been altered by social media?
In a world where you can easily create content with a device you carry in your pocket, the ways in which an organization connects to its customers, prospects, employees, stakeholders, in general, have increased vastly. Gone are the days of one conduit, few channels. And the PR landscape needs to adjust to these changes
Q. How many brands have a crisis PR plan in their pocket?
I can’t quantify how many brands have a crisis PR plan in their pockets….that’s the academic in me, but if I had to make an educated guess, I would say the smaller the organization, the harder it is to have a crisis plan. I work with a lot of nonprofits and that tends to be the case, but this is one of the values PR professionals can bring to the table—support organizations, big on small, in planning communications for the good times and the not-so-good times.
Q. I get a ton of pitches every day, and I am baffled by the lack of concern or care in these “pitch and pray” approaches. Sure, it takes time to develop a relationship with me or with any editor, but it’s also the key to coverage, especially positive coverage. What are your thoughts?
This may seem like an unpopular opinion, but with time, I have softened around how militant I was once about pitching and praying. When we first started in PR, we didn’t know a whole lot, were barely making ends meet, and working hard to work in and on our business. In one of our very first campaigns, we relied on pitching and praying. We got a pretty terrible public email tongue lashing from a blogger that made us rethink our approach. But you know what else it did? It made this blogger look like a jerk and miss the great stories and opportunities we could have offered had they taken a gentler approach. So everyone loses when we get on our judgment high horse.
With time, you learn and realize that good relationships are what matters, like a good story. Without these two elements, you are unlikely to secure coverage. But I also understand that people come to communications from all walks of life; at all sorts of stages, under so many circumstances and life pressures, so I try to be compassionate around this topic.
Q. Attitude and voice—you have them! Why are so many people so frightened of their own shadows today? It’s starting to scare me.
This is a fantastic question. First thanks. I’ve always had an attitude and strong opinions although I haven’t always voiced them. I spent my 20s defining, finding, and relating better to myself and my own voice. That said, I think a lot about the things I say and don’t say; I’m very intentional about what I put out there, but I’m also not afraid to apologize when I’ve made a mistake or course correct. I think this art has gotten lost and people expect perfection at all times.
I’m not sure if people are afraid of their shadow, but I do think a lot (including nuance and attitude) gets lost in social media interactions. And we’ve been socialized to strive for perfection and always look good, so voicing one’s opinion can be scary. I get it. I think a way to transform that is to be more compassionate with ourselves and those around us; we can normalize making and correcting mistakes.
Q. What’s the best preparation for a career in brand storytelling?
While I don’t think there is one clear path for a career in brand storytelling (and frankly, I think that the paths for careers in many industries except perhaps the sciences are becoming more and more diverse), I think 3 components are necessary—A voracious appetite for consuming good stories from a diversity of sources; an incredible curiosity about people, what drives them and makes them tick, and this includes an ability to shut up and listen; and a whole lot of practice, trial and error.
Editor’s Note: An abbreviated version of this interview appeared on Adpulp.com last September. This complete version will also appear in ‘Ad Brains: Honest Conversations with Advertising’s Icons, Rulers, and Rebels’, an eBook that will be available for sale here and wherever fine business books are sold.