GIANNI LAI, Design & Lifestyle Publicist @ Karla Otto

gianni lai

GIANNI LAI

Hometown: Houston, TX
Years lived in the city: 2+
Occupation: Design & Lifestyle Publicist
Company: Karla Otto
 

My first internship when I moved to New York was supposed to only last 3 months. I didn’t leave Houston with the intent of staying. I told everyone “I’ll be back” and didn’t even pack up my belongings when I moved here. I ended up coming here and thinking “I actually need to stay here for PR.
— Gianni Lai

Gianni Lai is from Houston, Texas with roots based in Hong Kong. After visiting New York just once, she fell in love with the city and didn’t expect to move here so quickly after graduation. She’s an avid fan of boba, her corgi, her collegiate sorority, and volunteering. She works in Public Relations for luxury brands and teaches special needs children on the weekends.

I’ve known Gianni since college but didn’t really get to know her until we both moved to the city. I loved learning more about PR from her and hearing about what she values in life. Her story is an inspiring one and certainly motivated me.

STEPH
What is the first memory you have of New York?

GIANNI
My first memory was of Times Square: I came with my mom and my best friend (we had just flown in from Canada). Right away, I noticed that it was so different from Houston and similar to Hong Kong, which I loved. I also remember seeing the Empire State Building and thinking it was so tall. In comparison, Houston’s skyline sucks so I remember being wowed in comparison by New York’s skyline.

STEPH
Did you know then that you wanted to move to New York?

GIANNI
Yeah, I knew that I wanted to move here. I’m a city person. I wanted to move here first, then move to Hong Kong for a year and be an expat.

In retrospect, I’ve always wanted to move here; I just didn't think it would be so soon. I thought I’d had to work my way here, so it’s pretty cool to come here right after graduation.

STEPH
And now you’ve been here two years and counting. What is your favorite part of New York? If you could go anywhere tomorrow with a friend, where would you go to?

GIANNI
Not a lot of people know about this place but the Museum of Moving Images in Astoria is really cool. They have an exhibit featuring the History of Gifs and show how movies are made. Astoria, in general, is very ethnic so there’s a lot of different foods to try. I just went there yesterday to get Thai hot pot, which I’ve never had.

I think in general when people come to New York they mainly want to go to Manhattan, but Queens and Brooklyn have so much to offer, too.

STEPH
I haven’t been to Queens since I moved here but I hear the Chinese food is great (update: went - and it was great).

So I know when you first moved here you lived in Queens. Can you talk about your experience moving here?

GIANNI
When I first moved, I was living at my family friend’s place in Little Neck in Queens/Long Island. I paid only $600 a month for rent for one room out of a big house. If you can imagine Hoarders, I was basically living in a house off of Hoarders. But honestly, I was grateful to be in the city. I wasn’t making much because I was still interning and my light in my room wasn’t working for a while and they took forever to fix it. I had adjusted to living in the dark with one lamp when my mom visited me and she was furious. My mom’s very type A and clean. She walked around and videotaped everything like “oh my god, this is a hoarder’s place” but I had adjusted to it. However, it was not a good living situation and was very far.

Then I moved to Williamsburg [in Brooklyn]. The area was nice but it was like living in a shoebox. But it was what I could afford. And I think that’s the thing about New York: You have to sacrifice one thing, whether it be money, time, or amenities. If you’re too high-maintenance, you won’t find satisfaction here. For my first two places, I sacrificed a lot because I was just happy to be here and wanted to work to get more money to be able to live where I wanted to.

Right now, I live in Park Slope which is really nice, but it's a little far. This apartment, though, I’m finally excited to go home to and it’s a big enough space for me. I have a living room now, which I didn't have before.

New York struggles, man.

STEPH
Struggles for real. I think we talked about this when we were looking for apartments. You either sacrifice amenities, location, or money. You give up one or the other

GIANNI
Yeah, you can't have it all unless you’re super rich.

STEPH
How did you go about getting your job in the city?

GIANNI
I actually got an internship first. I did not major in Public Relations in college and got into it kind of late during my last year of college. I majored in International Relations which was heavy in writing as well, but not the same.

STEPH
What made you want to do PR?

GIANNI
My big sis in Greek switched majors from Biology to Human Resources and did a virtual internship in PR. She told me about the opportunity for me to test if I would like PR. It ended up being a good first look at the field and I actually now show that internship to people when they tell me they're interested in learning more. It is a little different from what I imagined but I had a knack for it and I got promoted pretty quickly in my internship which boosted my confidence and made me want to do it full-time.

My first internship when I moved to New York was supposed to only last 3 months. I didn't leave Houston with the intent of staying. I told everyone “I’ll be back” and didn’t even pack up my belongings when I moved here. I ended up coming here and thinking “I actually need to stay here for PR.” I think New York is a good climate to be in, at least for a few years.

STEPHANIE
It’s a great place to start your career, especially for PR I imagine. So you moved here for your internship. Then did you work full time with them or did you try to find other opportunities?

GIANNI
The company I interned at was a really small boutique company for seven months and they didn't extend me an offer which I was upset about, but I think everything happens for a reason. That company was actually pretty catty, but I just wanted the insurance of having a full-time job.

Then I moved to another company which does more consumer-based PR which was 10x better for me. Now I’m at my current company doing luxury interior design, but we’re more known for doing big-name fashion PR for like Phillip Plein, Yeezys, Celine, etc. and I’ve been here for almost a year now.

STEPHANIE
So for people who don’t know what PR really is, can you give them a quick synopsis of the industry?

GIANNI
Yeah. So if advertising is paid media. PR is earned media.

Basically, if I go to editors and give them a product and tell the story behind it, they might put it on their social media or news sites.

There’s an issue with media at the moment though, more print media is being cut, so everyone’s fighting for positions. For instance, Zoe Report just cut all of their staff recently and only hire freelancers now- everyone’s just fighting for those spots. So I think the industry is in a very interesting state right now. We have to be more strategic going forward because the industry is changing.

STEPH
What do you pitch?

GIANNI
Say I have Colgate as a client. Maybe their campaign is “new year, new me”, so I pitch that to media sites and if they like it they might include it in their articles. They might mention it on their Instagram or in their articles like “Top 10 Moisturizers of 2018”...all of that is PR.

STEPH
I did not know those lists were PR. I thought it reflected the actual opinions of the writers and was organic.

GIANNI
More or less it’s PR. Well, it technically is organic since we send the products to them to try and if they like it, they’ll include it. But for paid media, it’s very up-front about how the companies have paid them, like the sponsored posts you see on Instagram.

Other examples of PR include when people unpack stuff on Instagram (like goodie boxes) or pop-up shops and events. It’s basically good branding and a good reputation for a product or company. While marketing is more numbers driven, publicity is more of a feeling.

There’s also in-house PR like Chanel’s personal PR team. In PR, you can work for an agency or for the client.

STEPH

It’s interesting because I think PR might be the new advertising. There's a cultural shift towards going to your friends or beloved bloggers for product insight. There’s a genuine distrust in ads or sponsored posts.

GIANNI
People are tired of the PR sponsored posts. There’s too many of them and way too many influencers to the point where it loses its value. Everyone and their mom wants to be a blogger today and everyone is promoting sugarbear hair. To a certain point, it doesn’t work.

STEPH
The sugarbear hair is overdone and has got to be one of the worst sponsored campaigns of all time. The people who sponsor it don’t even use it (aka Kim Kardashian). It’s ridiculous.

GIANNI
I’m pretty sure Kim throws it back out after she takes a pic with it.

STEPH
In your opinion what is good PR versus bad PR?

GIANNI
I think when you understand your audience and who you’re targeting, that’s good PR. Like Game of Thrones, when they were coming out on DVD, came out with this light and had a visual dragon “crash site ” and animated dragon projections statue at the NYPL (New York Public Library) and had a showing there. People like that kind of stuff.

Or Westworld having an activation at Comic-Con. They had an exhibit where you were “activated” and immersed in a part of Westworld. I think it’s smart when you do interactive things because then people remember it.

Bad PR could be Tarte’s recent new foundation line. There were only 7 shades and they were all lighter shades. Their audience consists of mostly millennials who did not react well to that. I think if their target audience had been an older generation, there wouldn’t have been such a bad response. Most foundations only have a few shades at first, but millennials are all about having a shade for everyone. And their response was that they would release more shades, but since it was winter they wanted to target paler shades. But half the world is in summer already and if you’re a darker skin tone, you’re not going to be pale all of a sudden just because it’s winter. So they failed in two ways: the product launch and then their response to the negative feedback.

STEPH
It’s also bad timing that FENTY had just released 40 or so shades and had gotten so much praise for being an inclusive brand.

So where do you see yourself in five years?

GIANNI
I’m currently freelancing on the side for a restaurant in Chelsea. I’m experiencing how stressful it can be to be the only one managing a company’s PR and a lot of small businesses don’t really understand what PR entails exactly.

In addition to PR, I also want to go more into digital marketing since marketing, advertising, and PR are all integrating with clients wanting to go to one agency for a one-stop shop. I do want to stay at an agency and eventually move in-house.

STEPH
What is a lesson you’ve learned from freelancing?

GIANNI
Setting expectations for people who may not know what PR is. PR is like makeup for a company. We can clean up your reputation to get people in the door, but if there’s no story or valuable product, it can be hard. Some people automatically think that PR can be controlled, but we can only do so much with certain products.

STEPH
Can you walk me through what you do in a day?

GIANNI
Usually, I wake up, go work out at the gym near my office, go to work, monitor articles that have been published or feature our clients, eat, do more work, go home or go visit my boyfriend. I try not to do much during the week and save my socializing for the weekends.

STEPH
Do you see yourself staying in New York?

GIANNI
I want to for now, but all my family is in Houston. I also want to move to LA, too, at one point, or be an expat somewhere abroad for a year. I have this urge to just save up a lot of money, quit, and travel. You really do only live once and there are so many things on my bucket list that I know I’ll probably never do so why not try to check as many off as possible?

STEPH
Speaking of family, you pay all of the bills back home. How are you able to do that? And saving in NYC is so difficult.

GIANNI
I mainly lived with my mom when I was in Houston and it was just us two. My mom also wasn’t working for a while, because she couldn’t find a job. Her English isn’t that strong. She does work now but she doesn’t make a lot so I help pay the bills at home, which I’m happy to do. But it is a struggle because I can’t save as much as I’d like to.

I have a second job now where two days a month I teach at a special needs school in Long Island. My boyfriend used to work there when he was in grad school and now works the Sunday program with me. Working there has been a very eye-opening experience, and it also does pay very well.

Right now I would say I’ve been the most comfortable I have been in a while, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get stressed about it. I always reassure my mom that it’s ok and I got it and I don’t mind helping. I’m happy to do it.

STEPH
That’s really awesome. I feel like most people our age are spending frivolously. How do you budget? Give us budgeting tips!!

GIANNI
Last year when I was going to Coachella, all my expenses fell on me at once. I started an excel sheet where I would list out each week and my budget for that week and put one month on every tab. When I first started out, my goal was $250 a week but you always spend more than your goal, so I moved it down to $150 a week. Certain months will be more expensive, but tracking it daily has helped a lot.

STEPH
What has the experience of teaching at the special needs school taught you?

GIANNI
I teach at a Respite program where it’s more like a camp. My kids are in kindergarten, first grade, etc. They’re pretty high-functioning on the spectrum for the most part, compared to the other classrooms in the program. One child can’t speak at all and another can’t hold in his bowel movements. If I go down the hallway, you can see some kids hitting one another. Seeing this makes me upset at times because as kids on the spectrum, there’s a lot of help, but the help decreases as you become an adult.

This has also taught me to be more patient because I am not a patient person, but you have to be very patient to talk with the children.

STEPH
Last question: what are you most grateful for?

GIANNI
My relationships with people. I’m the person who reaches out to people to do things and I used to be a very sensitive person when people didn’t reciprocate. Moving away from home was scary at first because I was worried I’d lose friends, but that didn’t happen. If anything, it made me more grateful for everyone in my life.

Like for my past birthday, my boyfriend made me a video of all my friends wishing me happy birthday. All of closest friends, my line sisters, and even my mom were in the video. I rarely cry, but when he showed it to me, there were just tears everywhere, haha.

Just reminders that people love you keep me going.