“My passion drives me and my client’s success daily.”

What do cannabis, crypto currencies, and sex have in common? All three are topics that face an uphill battle on the way to public acceptance, and many times, they are treated very unfairly by the press. Companies and start-ups working in those fields often have a hard time cutting through the clichés and sensationalism. Melissa A Vitale has set out to help these companies with her PR agency MVAPR. EAN had the opportunity to talk with the businesswoman about the obstacles her clients are faced with and about her strategy to change the public perception of these industries.

Melissa, you run the PR agency MAVPR, which is among other things active for sexual wellness companies. Can you tell us a little about your background?
Melissa A Vitale: Growing up in a small farming county about an hour and a half drive from New York City, I knew two things: I wanted more than anything to have a job balancing hustle, social life and a splash of glamour and I was absolutely fascinated with the New York City media landscape. Graduating from Rutgers University with a Communications degree and a background in consumer fashion marketing, I started working at one of New York City’s most notable beauty PR firms. After three months and staring for six hours at the labels of face lotions looking for a mushroom ingredient for a “fungi beauty pitch”, I knew I had to find something that better matched my drive and ambition.

Luckily, I was snapped up by Jim Dowd, a vet in PR best known for making the current US President a household name. With Jim, we were working with startups who were breaking boundaries in industries like hospitality, travel, fashion, real estate and automotive. We were placing clients in names like Fast Company, Fortune and New York Times without the overhead and frills of the luxury agencies I had been at previously. It was some of the most exciting work of my life: I once orchestrated a stunt that ended with crashing a $1M (USD) prototype on live broadcast in front of Hearst Magazine Tower–and the brand loved it! When Jim died, I looked for other PR agencies in NYC and across the country that would service startups with top tier press relations at a budget-effective price and came up dry.

That following birthday now four years ago, I set up my LLC to conduct business as Melissa A Vitale PR. Because I as sex-positive and a cannabis consumer in my own lifestyle, I naturally attracted my first vice client, private members club NSFW, run by then friend and now business partner Daniel Saynt. When word got out that I was getting a sex and cannabis entreprenru in headlines on sites like Newsweek, Forbes and Inc, my entire business became sex and cannabis brands.

While sex and cannabis brands are very different, they’re also very similar both in the barriers they face and the media they attract. While I try to keep it seperate, journalists who cover sex topics usually ask for cannabis pitches and cannabis writers often want to receive the sex-party invites.  Both sex and cannabis brands face censorship and financial barriers that normal consumer packaged goods are not bothered by. Vice brands also need to be approached with education beyond sensationalism. All media outlets way click-bait with sex and cannabis headlines but legal cannabis and sex wellness brands prefer thoughtful coverage that engages consumer loyalty. I’ve taken my conscious and targeted PR training and melded it with my passion for sex and cannabis. My passion drives me and my client’s success daily.

PR agencies often offer a variety of services. Where would you say are your core competencies? Or in other words: What do you think makes for good PR?
There are so many communication specialities that public relations can encompass. The specific brand of Public Relations I specialize in and offer is media relations and representation that result in organic press coverage. Media relations and representation is incredibly nuanced but breaks down into two main functions. The first: I maintain relationships with sex positive, wellness, technology and business journalists as a relaiable source for experts, stories and access to industry insight they don’t have themselves.

Publicists can often arrange for last-minute interviews with CEOs, overnight product requests and access to facilities and behind the scenes insight that readers crave. The second function: I represent my clients to editors and journalists in the press. I tell brand stories in way that captivate editors’ attention; I pitch seasonal product stories that are tailored to my clients yet still new and exciting to journalist; and I make sure my clients are in the newsrooms where their industries are being discussed. When brands work with me, within a week of sending me press samples, I can put their brand in the hands of outlets like Allure, Inc Magazine and Bloomberg.

I may be biased, but I think media relations can be some of the best marketing investment for brands facing both financial and censorship limitations like sex wellness and sex-tech brands. Investing in a PR retainer can lead to recognition among thought leaders like Marie Claire, Forbes and Rolling Stone. While similar investments in social media and advertising can bring in more sales, the increased brand legitimacy to consumers and investors alike is unparalleled.

Apart from sexual wellness companies, Melissa A Vitale also counts many players in the cannabis industry among her clients © Kareem Montes

What are the biggest misconceptions about your work that you keep coming across?
Everytime I go to a family gathering or in a vanilla space where people don’t understand public relations and they see my businesss card that says “Sex, Drugs & PR” they immediately think I sell one or the other of the words they do understand: sex & drugs. I often find myself repeating – I’m not a Sex Worker or a Drug Dealer, though I do represent sex-positive and legal cannabis brands and professionals. 

Your agency is specialized in the fields sexual wellness, legal cannabis, cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence. Of course, we’re most interested in sexual wellness, but could you first tell us, where the similarities between these fields are?
While wildly different, Sex, Drugs and Crypto are similar because they are all illegal somewhere in the world. All of these areas are also new, unknown and full of enthralling possibilities of a mature marketplace. Practically, these brands face similar barriers with advertising options, financial hurdles like being kicked off payment sites or in the case of crypto, not being recognized as a legitimate currency. They also all require the same tenacity and focus on education while representing these brands. It’s really easy to form a sensational headline around these vice and digital categories of brands; but while those splashy headlines garner eyeballs, they don’t yield turnkey consumer loyalty.

What on the other hand makes sexual wellness a unique field?
I think sexuall wellness is a unique field because of the power of its implication on social culture. A pleasure product, once considered novelty, is now recognized as a gateway to the dynamics of power and pleasure only publicly revealed in the wake of the #MeToo Movement. Pleasure is more than just feeling good; it’s empowerment, self-love, intimacy, connection, stress relief, a sleep aid, a confidence booster, an escape, a paradise and so, so much more for so many individuals. Sexual wellness, at least in the US, is universally misunderstood. You’re more likely to see someone disaprrove of a vibrator entrepreneur than say, a morally-corrupt businessman. The brands on the inside of the industry are working with a broarded, positive and transformative mission for pleasure positivity and sexual wellness.

Lacking the standardized education including areas like pleasure and masutrbation these brands address, many of them are missing their target market because consumers don’t even know a solution to their desires is available. It’s a unique field because of how quickly it has turned from taboo to wellness: now masturbation is encouraged daily in pop culture like eating an apple was in the 90s. Fitness editors are writing masturbation guides and business publications are featuring sex tech entrpreneurs. Looking back in 20, 30 years when sex toys can be purchased in every store and can advertise on social media platforms. I’ll look back to the entrepreneurs of today who legitimized the market.

On the one hand it is said that “sex sells”, on the other hand many media houses still seem to shy away from the topic of sexuality. Where do you currently see the media landscape when it comes to sex-related topics?
Sex does sell and it also makes conservative advertisers cringe. But at the end of the day, advertisers want to see traffic to the websites they invest to be seen on. In the wake of the bursting media bubble, Publishers have gotten smart. They’re taking advantage of all of those late-night google searches that usually lead readers down a rabbit hole. “What is Sounding,” “How to Fist,” “What do I do if I’m attracted to someone other than my wife”.

Many media outlets have SEO teams that run reports on the most searched questions. They hand those reports over to editors who assign writers to answer those questions with an article. Instead of those millions of searches going to forums and blogs, reputable news outlets are sweeping up that traffic. Once users end up on a website, they can stay for hours on the suggested articles of the site. Subscribership is down across the board for media so outlets need advertisers to stay afloat. Advertisers need traffic and readership to make a return on their investment and sex drives clicks. As long as consumers demand sex and free speech is still intact, Sex will be in the media.

Where do you see differences in this regard when it comes to Europe and the US?
Where Europe has a legitmate sex market with sex clubs, shops and experiences in every city, the US has legitimized the sex indsutry through connecting it to wellness. Brands in the US are creating products that blend with other consumer packaged goods and can be sold in stores like Urban Outfitters while many consumer sex stores in Europe still feature flashy displays and curtain-ed doors. The US market is incredibly driven by the dynamic of power and pleasure, driven to empower womxn and individuals through pleasure. I have yet to see the same degree of feminism that stands out in the US sex market spring up across Europe. 

Melissa A Vitale has managed to get cannabis and sexual wellness companies coverage in big, reputable mainstream media © Kenneth Rowe

In recent years, society has become more and more open to erotic products, which of course has also contributed to their visibility in public space. Do you expect this trend to continue? What impact does a more liberal society have on your work?
I think right now we’re in a digital sexual revolution that will, like the 60’s Free Love lead to more open ideals in the decades that followed, lead an arc of progress towards a more sexually accepting society over time. I hope in the next ten to twenty years we’re seeing sex toys advertised in the same volume as hair products or other lifestyle enhancers. The more people wanting to read sex toy stories is great! Already the past three years we’ve seen an explosion in season sex toy stories. Before, some outlets may have featured a sex toy guide once a year; now every outlet covers pleasure products regularly.

Can you give our readers some free advice on how they could increase their visibility and improve their outreach?
Absolutely! First, make the brand’s platform accessible to press. Any easy option is a press page with a contact email for inquiries, along with a short description of the company, and a bio including areas of expertise of the founder or any spokespeople. Next make the brand accessible to events where press will be at; partner with event and PR agencies who are filling gift bags for speciality or themed events that align with the brand’s mission. Finally, engage with press on social media.

Read articles that are relevant in your industry and see if the writer has a social media account on their author page. Follow them and if they follow back, introduce yourself so they know you’re press-friendly! Also – don’t be afraid to tap your network! People want to support entrepreneurs so a quick ask to your community can lead to an introduction to writers and editors who may be interested in telling your brand’s story. You never know!

For those who wanted to dive deeper, I even have a blog post on that very topic: melissaavitale.com/blog/what-can-i-do-to-boost-my-pr-without-a-publicist
Along with a Pre-PR Checklist of everything a publicist needs from a brand for a successful PR campaign: melissaavitale.com/blog/the-pre-pr-checklist

If a company is interested in using your services: how can you be reached and what would the next steps be?
Working almost exclusively with startups, I’m always available to bring new brands under MAVPR’s representation. Brands looking for targeted top-tier media relations can learn more about our services on our website and fill out a request for an intro call through melissaavitale.com/services.html