“The Espionage News Cycle” – A Conversation with SPY’s Aliza Bran
Andrew Hammond: Welcome to "SpyCast," the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, the museum's historian and curator. Coming up next on "SpyCast"...
Aliza Bran: Most places have a niche. But I think what's really cool about our content is that everyone likes spy stuff. You have kids. You have adults. You have former intelligence practitioners. You have young college students on first dates. You have everything. It really allows for a lot of creativity and picking who to reach out to with what ideas. And that's a lot of fun for me.
Andrew Hammond: Aliza Bran is the media relations manager at the International Spy Museum. So what's it like to be on point for a museum that specializes in one of the most misunderstood topics on the planet? What's it like to work the intelligence-espionage angle with the CNN, BBC World, our local FOX or NPR affiliate - not to mention The Washington Post, The New York Times, WIRED and Politico? Well, if you listen in, you're about to find out.
Andrew Hammond: Before coming to Spy, Aliza worked at a boutique PR firm where she had several museum clients. Prior to that, she studied political science at Washington University in St. Louis, although she grew up around the Washington, D.C., area. In the rest of this episode, Aliza and I discuss pushing herself up the intelligence learning curve, how to pitch spy stories to the media, media requests for commentary on operations or historical context, the difference between paid, owned and earned media, and how young Aliza thought Spy, quote, "the coolest place I had ever seen as a kid," close quotes.
Andrew Hammond: If you enjoy the show, please tell your friends and loved ones. If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @INTLSpyCast. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are 17 years strong. We are "SpyCast". Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: So I'm so excited to speak to you, Aliza. Tell us a little bit more about your role as the media relations manager at the Spy Museum. Some people would say that that's a contradiction in terms - media manager. But anyway, tell us a little bit more about your job.
Aliza Bran: Sure. First off, thank you for having me.
Andrew Hammond: Of course.
Aliza Bran: It's so exciting to be here and see you in your natural habitat. Yes. So I am the media relations manager and that means that I get to kind of yell from the rooftops everything cool going on at the Spy Museum, whether it's pitching stories about our artifacts or looking at the news and figuring out where intelligence fits in, where we could possibly provide some context to current news, sometimes putting Andrew forward, right here, for some opportunities to give that background, sometimes doing so for our executive director, Chris. So it's a really wonderful place to be. I get to work with all of our fabulous resources and help other people see how exciting they are.
Andrew Hammond: And that's five or six years you've been here now.
Aliza Bran: Six and a half.
Andrew Hammond: Six and a half. Wow. And I understand that you were at the Spy Museum way back when. Can you tell us about the first time you ever visited the International Spy Museum?
Aliza Bran: I was at the Spy Museum as a visitor, yes, many years ago. I remember when this institution opened. So I was at camp. Goodness, this is going to share my age with your listeners. But I was at sleepaway camp, which I did for many years as a child, and my father actually sent me a letter, which we did then, because you didn't email at camp.
Aliza Bran: Technology has changed. But I had received this letter from my dad, and it was about other things. And then he sent this article from Parade magazine, which I don't think we even had a subscription. I don't know where he found that. But it said, when you get back, we'll go. And the article was all about this new organization, this new place that had opened up called the International Spy Museum. Of course, I am from the D.C. area. I was born in D.C., and I was raised just outside Maryland. And so we were very excited to check this place out.
Aliza Bran: And I came, and it was honestly the coolest place I had ever seen as a kid. And I came from a family that liked doing museums. As many kids can be, I wasn't super impressed with high-class art, but suddenly coming in and having history come to life the way that this place does it really opened my eyes to what museums can do and what could be cool. And I remember I was on a seven-day trip from Sweetwater, Tennessee. I remember pieces of my cover, which is kind of embarrassing. And, you know...
Andrew Hammond: Tell us.
Aliza Bran: ...Memory is malleable, so maybe it's not accurate. But at the - I remember it so well because it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. And I've been a fan ever since.
Andrew Hammond: I think it's really cool with our museum that it's one of the few museums where everybody comes and, by and large, everybody leaves happy and excited, like, every generation, every age group, every member of the family. Because quite often, those museums that you go to with kids and the adults are like, oh, you know, I'm looking forward to sitting down and getting coffee afterwards. Or the kids are dragged to some art museum, and they're like, I don't really care about that stuff. But at the Spy Museum, like, everybody comes here. Everybody enjoys it. Everybody leaves happy. And this is not a sales pitch. This is what we see every day, right?
Aliza Bran: It's true. And I think it's the most fun when kids drag their parents and the parents think it's going to be a kids' thing and realize during their trip that actually they're having the best time. I think that's the greatest victory, when you have different generations and different folks come through and realize that, oh, I was forced to come here, but this is - I'm coming back.
Aliza Bran: I really like it here.
Andrew Hammond: So you came here as a kid, and now you've worked here for six and a half years. What do you think the magic is? What's the secret sauce? I mean, is it just the content? Is it just because it's on spies and espionage? I don't - I mean, I don't think it as I think there's something else that's more intangible. But I'd like to hear your thoughts on that as someone that was there at the beginning and has been through these past six and a half years.
Aliza Bran: Yeah. I think the content is what draws people in, so that's a great enticement. But it's not what does it once you get here. I think there's something really special, and this is - this speaks to your team the most, the folks who have developed these exhibits and figured out how to create what we refer to offhand as undercover mission - but the interactives throughout the museum experience. That makes it all incredible. I mean, we really - we look to find learners where they live whether it's you love videos; you love audio; you like being in front of the actual artifacts, which - not to tune our own horn, but we do have the largest collection of espionage-related artifacts ever placed on public display. That's kind of incredible. So whatever avenue it is that inspires you as a museumgoer, we really have it. So I think people walk away being excited and shocked by what we have to offer because of the way we show it, because of the way we develop these exhibits. We just understand, I think, the audience where they live.
Andrew Hammond: And I wanted, again, to - like, your favorite exhibit, your favorite artifact, to drill down it and to some of those interesting things. But I think before we get there, there's also been some quite interesting times since you've been here. So six and a half years - there was that - the old location on F Street in downtown D.C. And now we're over by the river in this swanky, new, beautiful building. But I know some of the staff that were here before the move. They still have fond memories of the F Street location. But for people like me and Erin, who are by the river, we can go to the fish market. The building's great. I don't particularly want to be over there. So I know that you have a bit of a soft spot for the old location as well. So just tell us about that transition from when you came on board. When did you find out that they're going to be moving location? How did you live through that experience? How did it affect you? What were the highs? What were the lows? And, yeah, help us understand that from your perspective as a media relations manager.
Aliza Bran: It was quite the adventure. So I did come on knowing that we would be moving.
Andrew Hammond: OK.
Aliza Bran: So that was not a surprise. They didn't take me on and then say, yes, you have a major project ahead. But I did have time to enjoy the old museum and share about the content there and how that place was set up and what we had going on and start truly planning for a major, massive move. When you go to a new building that was purpose-built from the ground up to be a museum after having been in a place that was, like, five historic buildings stitched together into this mazelike, crazy place - I loved it, but it was chaos. It was crazy.
Aliza Bran: We - again, we love it, but it was exciting to have a place that was built to do this, a place that was large enough to fit - I don't know - a Berlin tunnel, chunks of the Berlin Wall, these larger artifacts that never had a chance to even get into the museum because we just didn't have a large enough space. In addition to that, looking at how we could expand the content was exciting not just for everyone on our team, but also for me because that means I get to play with new material. I get to share new stories, new artifacts. Our collection tripled in size, I want to say, in 2017, but I don't know what time is anymore. So who knows when that happened?
Aliza Bran: But during my time, the collection tripled. It was unbelievable. Some of these pieces - you never expect the actual chunk of the U-2 spy plane. You have U-2 suicide pins and just all sorts of crazy stuff, which, to me, is very exciting and knowing that we could expand past, I think, what the regular only human intelligence content was, to look at the MASINT, the IMINT, the imagery - all of these other types of intelligence that are massively important and used frequently by folks in the intelligence field. So looking at water content - like, what's in the water? What's on your clothes? If I analyze it, would it be vanilla from cooking cookies yesterday, or was that bomb residue? That's really interesting stuff that people don't think of as much as your microphone in a shoe or whatever it might be. So it's been a really fun transition, but I will say it was a lot of work. 2019 was a big year for us, and I'd say the high was opening it and the low was opening it. And I say that with the most joy and excitement about it because it was such fun. But man, I wouldn't go back and do it again (laughter).
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) One and done.
Aliza Bran: It was tiring. One and done. So worth it. I'm so glad it's finished (laughter).
Andrew Hammond: That must have been a lot of pressure, Aliza, when the new museum was opening. I mean, obviously, you have a team around you, but ultimately, there's this whole new museum opening in D.C., which is a museum town, quite different from most of the museums in D.C. But all that pressure, despite the team, is still on you. Like, the word needs to go there. We need to be - people need to know about the new location, the press on TV. Tell us about that experience because that's a lot of pressure a few years into the job.
Aliza Bran: It was a lot, but it kept it exciting. I will say, I think - not to bring it back to our content, but, you know, like a good intelligence person, you have to rise to the pressure that comes. We only were going to open it once, right? So we are so lucky to have this building. We are so lucky to have this content, and it came through a lot of hard work and a lot of elbow grease. And you want to make the best of it while it's here, while it's new, while it's hot. And that's really - that's something that's true about media relations in general. I mean, you really have to capitalize on newness when it's new. So to me, it was we're going to make this work and I can sleep later, and that's OK because it's exciting and it's fun and I get to work with all these fabulous people, both internally as well as great reporters from all sorts of areas of life. Because, again, the Spy Museum, we're in art and culture. We're in security, in a sense. We are - we're in - our toes are in everything. So it's a fun, creative challenge and, yeah, lots of pressure but in kind of the best way.
Andrew Hammond: And tell us about some of the contacts that you have in the media. Like, are there particular organizations or outlets or journalists that you like to work with frequently?
Aliza Bran: I think it's like any other job, right? So you have people who you know well and you like and you think they do a good job, and their content is obviously - you fit in. Some of those people, certainly, you work with more than others, but I think part of my job is looking at each individual story that we have. So whether it's talking about our programs or our collection itself, the exhibit space, anything, really, and figuring out who would be most interested in this. Who writes this sort of thing? What have they written in the past? How do we fit into their interest of these three items? How do we fit that? Is it perfect? Great. That's the person. Maybe we've never spoken before, but that's who we should be talking to. So it's a lot of research. It's a lot of reading and writing and trying to figure out who's the best contact and how do we show them that that we are the best story for them? It's fun.
Andrew Hammond: So it sounds very pragmatic, then. It's just who is the best fit? It's businesslike. It's pragmatic. But of course, you do end up with certain connections and people that you particularly enjoy working with.
Aliza Bran: Yeah, I think it's a combination of all of it. So obviously, if there's someone who you know is the right person for it, that's where you start, right? In addition to that, you always want to work with people who are, like, thoughtful, smart, nice people. So I'm never...
Andrew Hammond: Nice people's always good, yeah.
Aliza Bran: ...Going to be mad to reach out to someone who I know does a good job and is good to work with. Yeah, and I think vice versa for them. They want to have the best source for something. Also no one's mad when that person is nice and good to work with. It's just - it's the working world. That's how it works.
Andrew Hammond: So I know that earlier you said that you get to blow the trumpet on behalf of the museum, so I think it's really interesting some of the outlets that we're talking about here. You know, we're not talking about insignificant outlets. We're talking about The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, BBC, Fox News, all of the above, and of course, regional and city publications and so forth. Just tell us a little bit more about the spectrum of outlets that you work with.
Aliza Bran: Gosh, everyone. I think what's most important is to figure out who your audience is, and for us, that's, you know, everyone (laughter). Most places have a niche, but I think what's really cool about our content is that everyone likes my stuff - or everyone cool likes my stuff. Let's be honest. Of that group, you have kids. You have adults. You have former intelligence practitioners. You have historians. You have young college students on first dates. You have everything. So I think it really allows for a lot of creativity and picking who to reach out to with what ideas. And that's a lot of fun for me. But it does mean that, again, you - I work with a little bit of everyone.
Andrew Hammond: OK. So bear with me on this question. But recently...
Andrew Hammond: Here we go. So recently I've been watching "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," and her mother becomes a matchmaker, where she's looking at these young women and pairing them with these young men that she thinks will be suitable. So in a way, it almost seems to me, when you were talking there, you're almost like a matchmaker. Here's the outlet. Here's the story. So I guess you have to identify if there's a story there to start with. And then you think, who in our team could help tell that story? And then after that, you have to think, OK, so where am I matching this up to? So almost feels a lot about like you're the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's mother.
Aliza Bran: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: Is that true (laughter)?
Aliza Bran: In a bizarre way, yes, absolutely. I think I do a lot of matchmaking of stories and media folks. I think what makes it easier probably than matchmaking actual human beings is that I can mold the story to the reporter a little bit, for the most part. Sometimes I can't. And then you're working with a fully formed thing and trying to figure out, where does that go? But the most-fun stuff is when I just have an amorphous idea, and I want to put that out there and find a good home for it. And I can do it in different ways. And I figure out what the appropriate avenue, the angle is going to be for the right person. So, yeah, a matchmaker, I'll take it.
Andrew Hammond: In the past journalism was sometimes used as a cover identity for spies. If you go to our webpage at thecyberwire.com/podcast/spycast, you will find an artifact from our collection that is related to this week's episode. Delegation Nacional de Prensa, numero trescientos veinticuatro, a small Spanish press pass issued should turn Americana working for the Chicago Times. Or was she? The recipient was one of the most incredible intelligence operatives in history, born into a wealthy Maryland family, Virginia Hall was smart, ambitious and charismatic. She went to elite schools, spoke several languages and went to work at the Department of State.
Andrew Hammond: Unfortunately, her smarts were trapped within the social structures of her time, consigning her to unfulfilling desk jobs when she dreamed of being a diplomat. During an assignment in Turkey, she was involved in a serious hunting accident and lost her left leg below the knee, all but guaranteeing that her diplomatic dreams would never come to fruition. We'll pick up the Virginia Hall story in the second interlude later in the show. I wouldn't miss it. She did things during World War II that made her a legend.
Andrew Hammond: You know, you mentioned their stories. So you need to be able to identify stories. That's not a skill that everybody necessarily has. So is that something that you came to the job with, like, I've always been able to pick out a good story? Or is it something that you've developed, or is it a little bit of both?
Aliza Bran: It's probably both, I think. That's a great question. I probably came with most of that. That doesn't mean you can't learn it, though. I think the most important things for someone going into my job is, first off, the understanding of what's going to be sellable, which again, for us, isn't literally sellable in a monetary way, but what's interesting, what's sticky, if you will, which is a terrible way to say that, but that, your writing skills, your communication skills; you want to verbally and in written form, be able to have good communication with people within and outside of your organization; and coordination. I do a lot of logistics - a lot, a lot, a lot. But, yeah - and some of that is going to be just regular research and having the smarts to figure out what's going to work for whom and when. And, yeah - and it's, again, for me, a lot of fun, but definitely something you need if you're going to do this.
Aliza Bran: And sometimes you'll be - I'll be watching something. Again, I consume a lot of news because that is also important for my job. You want to know what's going on not just in the museum world, but in your local market, in the world, really, and for, I guess, us in national security, intelligence, espionage, etc. But I remember looking at these WIRED videos. I was fascinated by them. And I thought, we could do that. We'd be great at that. And so I cold-emailed them, and I wrote that email for - gosh, I was workshopping that for a while. But it worked out. I mean, they reached back out and I said, yeah, that sounds great. We'd love to chat with Jonna Mendez - who wouldn't? - chief of - former chief of disguise of the CIA, and have her do one of these videos. And it was a perfect match, and I saw it. I knew immediately as I was watching these videos exactly how it would look. They are incredibly talented, so they did the heavy lifting. But I knew it would be a match. Or Atlas Obscura's weird and goofy artifact videos and just weird, gross things sometimes - we certainly have content that fits that. So I've had them over because I cold-emailed them about something. So it really - you just have to be creative. You have to see it. And that becomes easier when you consume a lot of news and content.
Andrew Hammond: Any prospective members of the media - how do they get in touch with you?
Aliza Bran: Should I be putting my email out there? Oh, my goodness.
Andrew Hammond: Or some generic one.
Aliza Bran: (Laughter) No, I love an email. Some folks call. I'll accept that as well. But yeah, if you have a great idea, and again, I worked on - I work on the earned media side, so if you're looking for ad placement, don't call me.
Aliza Bran: I'm kidding, I'm not. But we do have folks who, outside of our organization, do that. So I will not be the right contact, but I could put you in touch with someone. But also don't call me. So yeah, for earned media, always down to respond to an email.
Andrew Hammond: And just briefly for our listeners, what's earned media?
Aliza Bran: Oh, sure. See, this is good. You have to keep me honest for folks not in the space. Earned media - the way that media works is it's kind of - you have three sections, I would say. So there's earned, owned and paid.
Aliza Bran: So paid media is, you know, your advertisements out there. If you see a billboard, you see a sponsored post somewhere, someone paid for that position. Someone paid for that space placement. Owned media - that's, you know, your own website, your own social media platforms, your blog, perhaps your podcast. I don't know. That's owned media. So those are all the channels that your own organization, company, etc., has for themselves.
Aliza Bran: And then earned is this goofy place where I live, where you're just doing the legwork. You pitch things. You respond to things. No money is involved, but also you can't just put something out because you don't own it. So you're just doing the hopeful pitching to see if someone will cover something.
Andrew Hammond: Mmm hmm. Wow. And I think that's quite interesting, the - almost the supply and demand of stories, because it seems like sometimes you're - I know some of - from some of the work that we've done together, it's a response to an event that we have no control over. But then other times you're pitching ideas, like the WIRED video, which went on to get millions of views, right? So what's the balance, or does it shift depending on just weird factors or times of the year? Is there some times where the news cycle's quite slow and you get more of a chance to pitch stuff? Do you try to maintain some balance? Or - just walk us through what's going on there.
Aliza Bran: Yeah, it just depends, day to day. The whole thing is an adventure. So some times of year, I guess there's more of one or the other, but not necessarily. So I don't know that it's even seasonally based. It - sometimes there's news and people reach out. Sometimes there's news, and I reach out to them and offer you. Some of the things, it's still proactive work on my end. Other things, people reach out to me and say, we know that you guys are a reputable place, that has sources who are willing to talk about X, Y, and Z. Who can you connect me with? And so it's just a little bit of everything.
Andrew Hammond: Mmm hmm. Tell us a little bit more about that transition because the - some of the main people that you work with - so it used to be Peter Earnest, who unfortunately passed away. He was our founding executive director. And now Chris Costa became our new executive director. And then you worked with Vince for a long time, and then this bloody Scottish guy came along in 2020.
Aliza Bran: God, this crazy person just showed up and won't go away. It's crazy (laughter).
Andrew Hammond: So what was that transition like just for you professionally? Because you're working with these two particular types of actor or musician or performer, and then you have to have to pivot to work with two who are different. Not different in a tremendously large sense because they're fulfilling the same role, and there's lots of the same competencies, but it's still a different type of individual that you're working with. So tell us a little bit about that transition for your job as the media relations manager, pitching stories, getting people to talk, those sorts of things.
Aliza Bran: I work very closely with the historian-curator as well as the executive director, so the two roles you're really talking about. So it is definitely a transition. You go from knowing one person's strengths, interests, expertise, the way that they do things, and starting from scratch, which is always a learning curve for me as well as the person coming in. But I mean, it's not a bad - I mean, it's been so fun getting to know you and everything that you're good at talking about and everything you bring to the table. It's a totally different vibe from what we had before. Each person brings so much.
Aliza Bran: And so it is, again, a learning curve to figure out what does this person know? What do they like to talk about? How - what's their style? Are they comfortable in all of these areas? How do we make someone feel more comfortable in the areas that are not as natural? But it's fun. It's a nice little challenge. And I always miss the old, but I'm always excited about the new, so it's keep the old and get the new friends as well.
Andrew Hammond: Good answer.
Aliza Bran: It's honest, I swear.
Andrew Hammond: So tell us a little bit more about some of the other people that you work with. So you mentioned the executive director and the historian-curator role, but it's a deep bench. So tell us a little bit more about some of the other people that you work with.
Aliza Bran: I have the good fortune of getting to work with a lot of different people. I do live in my own silo to some degree, but when I am working with someone, I get to do so very closely. So definitely on our exhibits and programs teams, I do get to pick people's brains a great deal. And outside of that department, I mean, you also get to work with so many other folks. So we have a fabulous volunteer manager, so if I ever have questions about that or we're doing work to share our volunteer program, I get to work very closely with her. It's really - each department brings so much to the table, and it's a joy to be able to share each story and get to know each of these departments really, really well.
Andrew Hammond: And you also get people reaching out to you who want to work with people on our advisory board, people like Jonna Mendez, more so in the past, Oleg Kalugin, those sorts of people. So tell us a little bit more about that, about the people that are not paid employees of the Spy Museum, but you're still their handler. Are they still help you tell the story of the museum or get the museum's message out there?
Aliza Bran: Yes. So everyone comes in with their own kind of background content and relationship with the museum, who's on our advisory board. So we have some who - like, Jonna, who you mentioned, she's been involved since the founding of the museum, gosh, many, many years ago in 2002. So she brings, like, a very specific perspective to this that's really unique. Also, her expertise separately is incredible. But yeah, so people who come to her, she can speak to us as much as she can speak to her former role at the CIA. But for me, it's mostly trying to figure out who is best equipped based on their expertise to answer the questions or tell the story that is important to the journalist. And it's also my job to make sure that we are somewhat involved. I don't want to be just a handler to be a free publicity resource for every other person who's ever been in intelligence. That's a very large role. I would be working full-time 24 hours a day. That's crazy. But usually, I try to make sure that it's someone who's connected in some way to the museum. Ideally, they'll mention us. It doesn't always happen that way, but the idea is how do we make sure the museum stays connected to our resources? Because we want people to know what we bring to the table and what we're so lucky to have at our disposal, and that's really the people, internally and on our advisory board. We have so many great resources, so many smart people, and we just want to make sure that it's clear we're happy to share them when appropriate, but we do like to keep the museum in it as well.
Andrew Hammond: So tell us a little bit more about how you stay on top of the news. Like, it seems to me that - do you wake up every morning and there are particular sources that you go to, or do you have to constantly refresh throughout the day? Are you one of those people that's on Twitter as well, seeing what's coming up? Or - help us understand how you just stay on top of that ecosystem.
Aliza Bran: Yeah, I think it's different depending on the day. I mean, I do start off with mostly local news, I'd say, is the day to day. I always read - shout out to 730DC and Washingtonian and The Washington Post. It's always important to keep your eyeballs peeled, D.C. is. These are the places that I look at in the morning to get a sense of what's going on here. Outside of that, I listen to "The Daily," The New York Times podcast, most mornings - most mornings, I will say. I used to be better about it, but their COVID content was a bit depressing, so I'm not always as consistent as I used to be. But yeah, I think it's just figuring out, you know, what's going on in the world and where do you go for that content? So for world news, quite frankly, for national news, I look to BBC. I look to NPR. I - there are a lot of places that I tend to go for content to get a sense. I also like to go to more than one source because you just want to make sure you're confirming details.
Aliza Bran: It's really about making sure that you have a sense of what's going on, and part of it for me is knowing that we live in a very polarized world right now, and I want to have a sense of our full audience, which is everyone. So I'm going to even look at stories, places that I don't - you know, aren't natural fits for where I tend to go. Because if people go there to read the news, I want to know what they're reading. I want to know what interests them. I want to know what people are excited about, worried about, looking at. So that's part of the job as well.
Andrew Hammond: That must have been a challenge because - correct me if I'm wrong, but when you came to the Spy Museum, you weren't a practitioner. You weren't someone that studied this. You were someone that has had to come in and learn on the job and get up to speed. And you have a really great knowledge of the field. Tell us about that challenge. I mean, imagine going to another field and, OK, now you're the media relations manager and you have to think up of pitches and stories for something that you're working to get up to speed with. So tell us a little bit more about that learning process. Because, obviously, at the beginning, I'm assuming it was a bit more challenging, and now it's much easier now that you've got more content knowledge. But tell us a little bit about that.
Aliza Bran: That's a great question. I think any time you are in an incoming person in a new field, you have to read everything. You have to read, you have to watch, you have to soak up like a sponge. To me, it was talking to our historian at the time a lot about his views on things, what was going on, what's important; talking to other folks in the organization to get a sense of where we fit into this space, what our priorities are as well; and, of course, reading all sorts of articles. But I will say I've always been interested in this area, so it wasn't like I started from scratch. I mean, compared to a practitioner, I - basically, I started from scratch. But as a layman, there is a reason I was drawn to this organization, and it's because I find the content interesting. And it's because I want to read about it. I want to see it. So it wasn't totally out of left field.
Aliza Bran: I did work at a boutique PR firm in a past life. And I had several museum clients, and I liked working in a museum. I enjoyed that sort of work and the focus you get from that. But any client you have, you can become sort of bizarrely specialized in. And I had a lung cancer nonprofit that I was working with, and I know things about targeted therapies that are very specific. And no, I did not major in cancer research in college, which I don't think you can even do, but you learn on the job, you take it in and you bring it home, you do your homework.
Andrew Hammond: It almost seems to me that it's an advantage not to be a specialist because then you can meet laypeople where they are. And, sure, some of our audience is people with more specialized knowledge, but the majority don't have specialized knowledge. So you have an advantage. Would you see it like that?
Aliza Bran: I would agree in a sense. I think everyone brings something special to the table. So even if you came in with specialized knowledge, you have your own advantage. I come in with my version of an advantage, which is understanding what, again, regular people understand and what interests them. I'm not too close to the material. Though, I guess at this point, perhaps I am. But, yeah, I mean, there's definitely advantages from whichever vantage you come in at this with. But I try to be thoughtful about acronyms. I'm not going to come at someone, even if I know them - you know, I guess I have used a couple on this podcast. But I assume that the people who are listening to your podcast are a bit more specialized, have some sort of background to take in this sort of content, which is different from, well, do something with kids. A kids publication, we are very, very simplistic but not in a talking down to you sort of way. We just use the words that help them understand what's going on. And a lot of that is more learning based rather than espionage hardcore. But yeah, it's just figuring out your audience, where they're at.
Andrew Hammond: So tell us how you came into media relations, PR then. So I know you grew up in Washington, you went to school at the University of Washington in St. Louis.
Aliza Bran: Yeah, all the Washingtons, apparently.
Andrew Hammond: All the Washingtons.
Aliza Bran: (Laughter) Go Bears.
Andrew Hammond: And then you come back to Washington. So tell us how you end up at the Spy Museum, just the brief version.
Aliza Bran: Sure. The short version is I - yeah, as you said, I grew up here. I went to Washington University in St. Louis and got a degree in political science, and I did minors in writing and anthropology. I have a natural interest in a lot of the content that we cover at this museum. And I came out of school looking for something to do, and I was very well suited to doing public relations just based on my personality and my interests. And I found out about it. I did an internship, and I thought maybe I can do this. I got a job in it. I had some museum clients. I liked doing it. And then this job opened up for my favorite museum. And it's not because I'm paid to say that, but because it's true. And I really - I thought there's no way that this will happen. That would be too absurd. But it did. Even in my interview, I - my current boss, I remember talking to her, saying, honestly, I really like this place. You know, let me tell you about my first visit. And I said, you know, I'm not pandering. I'm really - this is earnest (laughter). I would love to work here. And somehow she didn't think I was too much of a fangirl and let me do it.
Aliza Bran: But, yeah, that's been my journey. And we didn't have communication - we didn't have a communications major at my school. I wasn't in the business school, but I had a very well-rounded liberal arts education. So it helped me figure out how to think, know how to write, all of that stuff, everything you need. But I didn't have a specialized track into public relations. I figured all of that out on the job for the most part, the same way that I feel like I figured out how to talk about intelligence, national security, espionage, etc. So you can always do it, just takes some elbow grease.
Andrew Hammond: Undeterred by being labeled merely a woman and merely a disabled woman at that, Virginia Hall went to work for the French Ambulance Corps early in World War II. After the fall of that country, she fled to Spain and was subsequently accepted into the British Special Operations Executive, or SOE, where she was trained in spying, sabotage and resistance. She returned to France, where she would organize networks of agents, help prisoners and downed pilots escape and coordinate supply drops and ambushes of German convoys. The story doesn't end there, though.
Andrew Hammond: After once again escaping through Spain, after the Germans occupied Vichy, France, this time by trekking over the Pyrenees mountains on her prosthetic leg, called Cuthbert, she joined the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, a forerunner of the CIA. Once again, she went back to France, this time after having her teeth ground down to help her resemble an old peasant woman, Virginia helped support the Allied invasion of France. She went on to join the CIA when it was founded in 1947. For her exploits during the war, she won the Distinguished Service Cross, the Croix de Guerre and an order of the British Empire. You can't see her Spanish press pass at this time, but if you come to visit us, you can see many of the other artifacts we have on Virginia Hall. What an incredible woman.
Andrew Hammond: So let's dig into some of the more interesting little nuggets of your experience here. So do you have a favorite artifact? Does it change, or have you always had a favorite?
Aliza Bran: You know, it shifts sometimes. I will say for a while I have had a favorite that I don't even know if I should say on this podcast. And I - you know, please cut me off. You can edit this out. But I love the scrotum concealment, and I am not embarrassed to say it. I think it's fascinating. And I think it's fascinating because we so infrequently get to see, like, a model created. I mean, the scrotum concealment was never used in the field. It didn't go forward. For your listeners, just as some background, this is something that Tony Mendez, who is of "Argo" fame today - Ben Affleck played him in the movie - a very serious CIA mind created this idea that you'd be able to have this small radio inside of this concealment that would go over your own body part, so if you were in a bad situation, you'd still have access to that. I think it's brilliant. And the fact that the story goes, when he brought it up to his own leadership, they were so embarrassed and horrified, they were like, I never want to see that again. It's not going forward. And that was it. But he had created - you have sketches that he developed of this - serious sketches. I know that sounds ridiculous, but - and then the model itself. You so infrequently see that middle, something coming to be versus something that's fully formed. So I think it's fascinating.
Andrew Hammond: I feel like a lot of people, when they see that artifact, it becomes this playful thing, you know, it's a joke, oh, haha, the scrotal concealment device. But what you're saying is that this was an idea and there's a whole backstory about how it came into being. There was an idea and then there was drafts and then it was modeled up just as seriously as anything else that Tony Mendez would do.
Aliza Bran: Right.
Andrew Hammond: And it was for serious tradecraft. But the fact that people find it playful or whatever is by the by.
Aliza Bran: Yeah, I mean, people are always going to laugh about body things. That's natural. But a lot of our artifacts - almost, I guess, every artifact is based on a creative problem-solving equation. So there's real thought that's gone into all of it. People laugh at the rectal tool kit, but you have to think about how did that come to be? They had to think through a lot of questions to make that work, hypothetically. And it's serious. It's - you are only supposed to use it if your life is in danger. Otherwise, certainly you would not put that in. So this stuff is very serious. Also there is a light side to it. You don't want to overthink the seriousness of it all the time because then everything would be very serious 100%. But these are not silly things. They can be silly, but they're not really silly.
Andrew Hammond: Any others? Is there any that are, like, a close second or...
Aliza Bran: Yeah, I really like - there is an iron in our Stasi section that has a concealment right where you would be (laughter) so you can put paper or different intelligence, something in there. No one would know. But what's exciting about it to me, what makes it special, is that you can use the iron. The iron is usable. You could plug it in. So if you had paper intelligence and someone figured out that you were not who you said you were, you know, you ended up in a bad situation, you could burn that stuff up. You just plug in the iron, and it's toast. That is brilliant to me, you know? And it works. Sometimes, you have a thing that doesn't really work in actuality because its main function is something else. But that's cool. I think that's cool.
Andrew Hammond: It seems to me that with a lot of our artifacts and exhibits, there's so much ingenuity that goes into quite a lot of them, isn't there? There's not always a playbook for these types of things. It's people thinking on their feet, doing some adaptation to some event. It just seems remarkably creative in many ways.
Aliza Bran: Absolutely. And I think that's why I find the artifacts so interesting, in general. Each one is trying to solve a problem. How do we do that in a way that doesn't give away what we're trying to do and that succeeds in whatever the mission is, whatever we need to catch or capture intelligence-wise? So it's - yeah, really incredible stuff.
Andrew Hammond: I'm really curious to know the answer to this next question. What are some of the coolest things you've done or the coolest people you've met?
Aliza Bran: Oh, gosh, I don't even know. I mean, it's hard to determine - I can't say that I've spent a whole lot of time with celebrities. I mean, most of my job is really just doing the heavy lifting of the pitching (ph). I have been lucky to meet some folks. From a nerd perspective, the first time I met Jonna Mendez really was thrilling, and it's funny because we work together so frequently now that she would give me crap for probably saying her. But once you meet the former chief of disguise for the CIA, that is pretty cool. That's pretty cool. But I'd say Admiral McRaven was very exciting when he came to one of our Webster dinners. That was huge for me. I think he's a very impressive individual. And, look, I'd be remiss to say that it wasn't cool having Noah Centineo here last week for the "Recruit" premiere. I am a huge fan of some of the Netflix chick flicks he has been involved in - not going to pretend I'm not. That was a lot of fun.
Andrew Hammond: Tell us a little bit more about the premieres. Because there's been quite a few of them over the years, right?
Aliza Bran: Yes. We've been very lucky to partner with different movie or TV production companies, groups, to promote some of these spy TV shows and movies. And I think we're such a great place to do that sort of thing. Obviously, our content speaks for itself. We have a fabulous theater. Why would you not use it? But it keeps it interesting, you know? This is the lens that our audience knows our material through. And most of the time, it's silly, quite frankly. I mean, Bond is a terrible intelligence person. He gives out his personal name to everyone. He's well known. He drives flashy cars. He is so not the gray man in the background. Nothing about this makes sense to me. In car scenes, which - you watch this and you're like, you ruined the whole thing. It doesn't make any sense. But this is how people know intelligence content, you know? This is where people come in and meet us.
Andrew Hammond: I think that's quite fascinating, that relationship between fact and fiction, because it reminds me a little bit of the movie "Braveheart." Most people's knowledge of 13th-century Scotland comes from watching "Braveheart," and most people's knowledge of espionage and intelligence comes from popular culture. So we're trying to disabuse them, quite often, of some of the things that are in popular culture, but we're also saying this is interesting in and of itself and in its own right. So we are walking this fine line between fact and fiction, and we have PhD intelligence studies people on staff that are like, that's not factually accurate, or we have former intelligence officers on staff who are like, that's not factually accurate. But actually, you know, this is where a lot of our audience - this is their entry point. So we need to meet them there, and then we need to go on a journey with them to explore that interest and relationship that they have with popular culture, while also trying to tell them about things like mass and measurements and signals (ph) intelligence, which is not particularly sexy on the surface, but is very important.
Aliza Bran: It certainly is.
Andrew Hammond: All of us dorks, (inaudible).
Aliza Bran: Speak for yourself, Andrew.
Andrew Hammond: So yeah, I think that that's quite interesting, that fact-fiction relationship. And just as we get to the end now, somebody that wants to go into your field, what advice would you give them?
Aliza Bran: I mean, it would depend on their age, where they're at. I would say for those who want to do a communications kind of major, go for it, but it's certainly not required. I think my WashU liberal arts education was, thankfully, very broad, and of course, my interests led what I did, which are related to, of course, this material. So it worked out very nicely. But you can learn on the job. You can learn anything, but what you need to bring to the table before you get started - you have to be a good writer. You have to be a good communicator. You have to be able to connect with people, have a sense of what they're interested in and what gets them excited. I think I keep saying that, but it's true. I mean, you have to get someone excited enough to want to write about something, to understand other people's viewpoints. Why should this person be excited? Why would their audience be interested in reading this? What's relevant to them? What makes this important now? I mean, these are all the questions that - nothing is brilliant, but this is the kind of thinking that you have to do to be able to do this job well.
Andrew Hammond: And I think it's quite interesting as well that what our listeners don't know is that when you're doing your job, it's not like all of the staff are sitting upstairs just waiting around for you to come to them with some story idea. People are very busy. We've got a very lean staff. Personally speaking, I'm trying to keep 50 plates spinning, and then you come along and it's...
Aliza Bran: Sorry.
Andrew Hammond: No, no, no, no. I love working with you, and this is one of the highlights of the job for me. So just for our listeners, to give them some perspective, you're coming up with these things, and sometimes it's the material that you have to work with may not be available, or the rug might be pulled from underneath your feet. So you're reacting to quite a fluid environment constantly as well. So that's another challenge for anybody, I guess, that wants they go into this field. Don't - if you want to turn up at this and everything to go, like, A, B, C, D, all the way through to Z at the end of day, forget about. Take all the letters, put them in a cocktail shaker.
Aliza Bran: It's not stirred. Absolutely. Yeah. No, it's a kind of crazy space. I think you're - you do all of the planning that you can possibly do, but you have to manage the environment, which is constantly changing, has time constraints, both for internal and external forces. Like, you just fit in where you can, and you also have to prioritize. So there are things where I say, you know, got too much. That's OK. We're not going to do it. Great idea; not meant to be. That's OK. There are other things where I say, you know, as you've probably heard, this is really important. This is a moment. I mean, we really need to be on this one. And it's a special opportunity to do something interesting and unique and that will showcase our talent. So you really have to read your sources and see what you have available. When you are doing 8,000 things, I have to figure out, is it important enough, am I special enough to be the No. 1 thing on that list? Probably not. But figuring out, you know, what's the impact of what we're going to do? Is it massive? Then maybe we should choose this.
Andrew Hammond: It should be prioritized, yeah, yeah.
Aliza Bran: So sometimes I have to be poking people, but usually it's all fun, and people are excited to be a part of it. So it helps. That helps.
Andrew Hammond: So final question - what would the perfect pitch look like? So, say, for me, I want to get in touch with you. You said that you can identify a story. You must be able to spot a great pitch at a thousand paces. You must be able to look at something and just go that is ticking every box that I'm looking for. What are those boxes?
Aliza Bran: Yeah, I think - so there are some general recommendations I would have. And then there are some things that are just going to be specialized to the person you are pitching. And that I will say every time because the same pitch is not going to work on a thousand people, and it shouldn't.
Andrew Hammond: It's like a CV or job application letter, right?
Aliza Bran: Yeah. I mean, if you're writing your cover letter for this position, why do you want to have this job? It's not going to be the same as every other - if you send the same letter out to a thousand different organizations, no one is going to hire you because they know. They know that this has been drafted very broadly to fit everything. It shouldn't fit everything. So first off, know your audience. Research your audience. Figure out, what does this person write about? What does this person find interesting? And how does it fit into the sort of things that they've been writing about recently? In addition to that, obviously, don't write an essay. No one wants to read that. If someone's interested, they will get in touch with you in response, and then you can provide more information as per what they'd like to see. But do not - oh, my gosh. The long emails - no one wants that. But you also - you want to be quick, but you want to have a couple of very specific, unusual details, if you can, something that - and I guess I'm more thinking of when we have exhibits or artifacts. Hypothetically, if you have, like, an event, that's a very different kind of direction. And of course, you do the who, what, where, when, why, which is not thrilling. But everyone does it. But, yeah, I mean, figure out what makes this unique. What's sellable? Do it quickly. Be concise, but don't be boring. I mean, you should have an opening line that's, like, kind of cool. And then you get into everything, and everything should be short.
Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks ever so much. This has been a...
Aliza Bran: Sure.
Andrew Hammond: ...Really fun and fascinating conversation. And thank you.
Aliza Bran: Yeah, thanks for having me. This has been so much fun.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Please follow us on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. There's no clip for next week's show but rather a cryptic clue or two that suggest what the content might be about. Join us next week to unravel the mystery. If you're new to the show, please subscribe to ensure you get your weekly high-level debrief. If you're already a valued member of the "SpyCast" community, please consider leaving us a five-star review. If you go to our page at thecyberwire.com/podcast/spycast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. I'm your host, Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter, @spyhistorian. My podcast content partner is Erin Dietrick, and you can follow her @pubhisterin (ph). The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Jo Zhu, Emily Coletta, Afua Anokwa, Elliott Peltzman, Tre Hester and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum.