After graduating with a BA in Journalism and Psychology (double major) from the College of LSA in 1978, Howard Bragman has led a distinguished and groundbreaking career in the Public Relations (PR) industry. Among many other accomplishments, Bragman co-founded Bragman Nyman Cafarelli Public Relations and Marketing (BNC), which became the world’s largest entertainment PR firm in the 1990s. Now a “Fixer” or Crisis Manager helping actors, athletes, CEOs, and other high-profile figures deal with their public setbacks, Bragman has also been an ABC contributor for shows such as Good Morning America and Nightline for more than a decade. In the late 1980s, Bragman began representing clients involved in LGBTQ+ rights cases and helping celebrities and other public figures come out of the closet. Since then, he has been a lifelong champion of LGBTQ+ rights and representation. Bragman credits U-M—including the Spectrum Center and courses in the Department of Psychology—with providing the support and tools he needed to make sense of his own life as a gay man in the 1970s. To give back and help future young people, he recently made a $1 million bequest to the Spectrum Center—the largest gift the center has ever received—to establish the ‘Howard Bragman Coming Out Fund.’
In this interview, Bragman discusses his formative years at U-M, his influential career in PR, and the critical importance of places like U-M’s Spectrum Center for LGBTQ+ young people.
Let’s talk about your early years. How did you end up at U-M, and how did you decide to major in Journalism and Psychology?
I grew up in Flint, Michigan, and my father had gone to Michigan. I never planned or wanted to go anywhere else. It was my first and only choice. When I got my acceptance letter, it was almost an inevitability.
I was originally going to be a doctor. That’s back when everybody wanted to be a doctor [laughs]. But I quickly realized that was not something I wanted. I had worked on my high school newspaper and always enjoyed that, so I switched to journalism. But I was also coming out of the closet at the time, so I started taking a lot of psychology classes for my own betterment. Pretty soon I ended up with a double major. I was never looking to go into the field of psychology. I was just looking to understand myself.
Can you talk more about coming out at U-M in the 1970s? What role did the Spectrum Center play?
I went to Ann Arbor from ’74 to ’78. Back then, coming out certainly wasn’t something you thought of doing publicly. I had fallen in love with somebody, and I was all messed up in the head. I went to my Resident Advisor in West Quad, and she put me in touch with somebody in health services and a therapist, and they were in touch with the Spectrum Center. I originally went in saying that I wanted a change, and they said, you know, don’t go in with a specific goal. Just go in and follow the process. And that is indeed what I did.
One of the ironies and miracles was that here we were in 1975 in the middle of the Midwest, and instead of trying to change someone, they just allowed me to be me and honored that. I think that’s pretty amazing and one of the reasons I gave my recent gift. I was living in a dorm at the time, and they asked what my income was. My income was what my family sent me, which was $100 a month. So I said my income was $1200 a year, and I ended up paying $3 an hour for therapy. It was pretty amazing.
You know, I think back to that time, and my life could have gone one of two ways. It could have been really messed up, or it could have built the foundation it did for the rest of my life. And that is what happened: I built a foundation of personal understanding and confidence in who I was. Then I went home to my family right after I graduated. I came out to them, and they were incredibly supportive. If either situation had been different, my life would probably be very different too.
So I think that’s kind of the Michigan miracle, if you will. Michigan was the first university to have an openly gay facility in the form of the Spectrum Center, and it worked. People think that bureaucracies don’t work, but my resident advisor put me in touch with health services, who put me in touch with a therapist. It just worked, and they saved my soul. They saved my ass. And it wasn’t about money for them. It was about doing the right thing.
How do you think these experiences and/or your Psychology degree influenced your later work in PR?
When you grow up an outsider like I did—or at least you perceive yourself as an outsider—you can identify with people who are in trouble. What I do now is crisis management , for people who are not having a good time, and when I do these things, I’m not judgmental about it. I’m empathetic. My first response is always just to help people, and we can figure out what went down later. I’m the guy who runs toward people in trouble. I’m the guy who runs toward the fire, not away from the fire. I mean, we’re all human beings. We’re all going to screw up. We’ve all made mistakes. But you can’t go back and change what you’ve done. You can only move forward. I think I’m a student of human nature, and that’s what psychology is too. I don’t consider myself just a PR person. I call myself kind of a publicist/rabbi/shrink, and there is actually a great deal of overlap between what I do and my Michigan education.
Let’s talk more about your career in PR. How did you get into the industry, and how did you get to where you are today?
After I graduated, I decided I wanted to go into advertising. So after spending a bit of time back in my hometown of Flint, I packed my stuff and moved to Chicago. My first job in the business was at a magazine. But while I was there, I decided I was interested in PR. I got a job at a small agency, and I kind of loved it right from the start. Our firm got the Anheuser-Busch/Budweiser account soon after I got there, and through a series of circumstances, I was running Budweiser for 10 states in the Midwest and doing events of all kinds with celebrities, sports, and business campaigns.
I was there for about three years, and then I went onto a bigger arena: Burson-Marsteller, which at the time was the biggest PR firm in the world. Then while I was in their Chicago office one cold November day, they asked if I would like to move to LA, and I said “Yeah; I’m 30 years old. What do I have to lose?”
After a few years at Burson-Marsteller, I started my own firm in ‘89, which grew to be the largest entertainment firm in the world and the largest PR firm in LA. We sold that at the end of 2000. I worked off my contract, and then started another agency. But in the last few years, I’ve really been a consultant who focuses on crisis and controversy: I help people when they’re in trouble. I have realized over time that I really don’t like running a company. I like PR—the practice of actually doing PR. In addition to this, I taught PR for six years at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications. I have also been an ABC News Contributor on Good Morning America, Nightline, and other shows for more than a decade.
Can you talk more about your current work as a crisis and controversy PR consultant? What kinds of clients do you work with? What is a typical work day like for you?
Well, I can’t talk about most of my clients because they’re all NDA-protected [laughs], but it’s everything from movie stars to athletes to municipalities to high net-worth individuals to CEOs—almost anything you can imagine. And it’s beyond interesting. Every day is a challenge, and I never know what I’m going to wake up to.
But there are some clients who have been made public. I worked with Monica Lewinsky. I worked with Nick Cannon in 2021. I worked with Sharon Osbourne. I am working with Wendy Williams now while she is dealing with an illness. I represented Tracy Chapman in a lawsuit against Nicki Minaj, which we won. I do a lot of interesting things like litigation support. And I like to say I have represented people on all three sides of the #MeToo movement: the accused, the accusers, and the people who get kind of thrown into it because of marriage or being part of a business that has been accused.
You are known for championing LGBTQ+ rights and for helping celebrities and other public figures come out of the closet. How did that part of your career begin, and how has it evolved over time?
That is a part of my career that I am very proud of. I should start by mentioning that throughout my post-college professional years, I was as an openly gay man. I guess I don’t need to mention that this was pretty unusual in the early 1980s. I was probably one of the first people at Burson-Marsteller who was hired as openly gay, and they were embracing, no judgment. I give so much credit to them for that, and when they moved me to California, they moved my partner too.
When I started my first company in 1989, my first client was a cadet named Joseph Steffan, who was suing the Naval Academy for kicking him out for being gay. The secretary of defense was Dick Cheney at the time, and that case became Steffan v. Cheney. I took it on pro bono, which was a wild thing back then. People just didn’t do it. I also started representing people for a lot of HIV and AIDS things, which nobody would do back then either. I represented the adult entertainment industry for first-amendment issues too. So while I was building a mainstream firm, I was doing some very controversial and groundbreaking things, and much credit is due to my partners, particularly Michael Nyman, who let me do it and did it along with me.
Then in 1991, there was a big protest in Sacramento because the governor had promised to sign some pro-gay legislation, but he didn’t do it. The head of the Gay and Lesbian Center in LA said, “Listen, tomorrow is national coming out day, and I have got to be in Sacramento for the march. Would you do me a favor?” And I said, “What do you need?” He said he had two celebrities who wanted to come out and asked if I could take them out for him. The two celebrities were Dick Sargent, who played the second Darrin on Bewitched, and Sheila Kuehl, who went on to become an elected official in California but was then known for being in a show called The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis many years before. So I took them out in People and Entertainment Tonight. I quickly became known as the guy who took celebrities out of the closet, and I took all sorts of celebrities out of the closet—Amanda Bearse from Married with Children and Don Lemon from CNN, for example. I started taking athletes out of the closet, which culminated in taking out Michael Sam, who was one of the first openly gay football players.
It’s certainly not a big part of what I do, but it’s something I’m very proud of because it has changed the world. Every piece of research has shown that the biggest changer for people’s opinions about LGBT issues is knowing someone who is LGBT. If I can show people that they know this celebrity they already like, I’ve really changed things a lot, particularly when I break a stereotype like in sports.
You recently made a $1 million bequest to the Spectrum Center to establish the Howard Bragman Coming Out Fund. Can you talk more about that?
Well, as I said earlier, they were there for me at a very seminal moment in my life. And let’s look at the economics of it. I’ve already said I paid about $3 an hour for therapy. I think my tuition was $578 per semester. It was one of the great bargains of my life: an in-state education at the University of Michigan. And I have nothing but gratitude for how I was treated. For me, I'm gladly paying a debt back.
When I thought of a legacy that I wanted, it wasn’t a building. It wasn’t a classroom. It wasn’t a chair. It wasn’t a blackboard. It was just helping people confront the worst issues they had to confront. And what is important is that I put almost no constraints on how this money would be used. I called it a “coming out fund” because that is what I’m known for. But in terms of how it will actually be used, there are almost no limits. Because being transgender wasn’t a thing when I was in college, or at least it wasn’t a thing we dealt with or talked about. HIV wasn’t a thing. And if these things or new versions of them come around, I want the money to be able to help people confront them, whatever these issues might be in the future. I talked to friends who have given gifts and friends who worked at universities, and they said “please don’t define it too narrowly.” Plus, I didn’t want to, you know, hold onto money from the grave. That’s like some Crypt Keeper stuff to me [laughs]! I give with what I want to think is an open hand and an open heart.
Again, I don’t care about having my name on anything. I want my legacy to be some kid getting a scholarship who got kicked out of their house because they are gay or nonbinary. If that’s what happens with my money when I’m gone, then it will be money well spent.