The subject of Arts PR fascinates me and as a writer, I’ve seen my fair share of good and bad examples of it. But, for years, I’ve longed to interview an Arts PR and find out what it is that they do exactly, why they do it and find out what happens on the other side of the divide.
Luckily, Chris Hislop, a former critic and Arts PR, readily agreed to an interview when I approached him. Here is the interview published below in full, which covers star ratings, changing career from a critic to a PR and the monster that is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
You’ve been a playwright, actor, director, reviewer, editor and many other things within the theatre industry, what was it that made you make the leap from arts journalism to arts PR?
It’s the only thing I was any good at! No seriously – I’ve been working in theatre for over 10 years and I’ve struggled to find that job that a) I’m really good at and b) can sustain my life financially.
I was never a truly dab hand at the acting or directing, and whilst I loved reviewing and editing it wasn’t really sustainable. PR is the only place I have found both of those.
What was it that made you go into arts PR specifically? Was it a case of the right opportunity coming up at the right time? Or a case of fuck it, why not try this?
After losing a job as an editor, I was desperate – and a PR I knew needed a new assistant. It was a field I’d dabbled in before, so I thought it might be a good fit. There was an element of “fuck it, I need a job, I have a baby on the way”, but luckily it worked out very well – I didn’t expect it to go so well, but I think I’ve finally found a very natural calling for me in the theatre landscape.
You’ve worked within a PR agency and as an independent PR afterwards, how do these two worlds compare?
Chalk and cheese. Agency work didn’t suit me at all – while there’s an obvious excitement in working for huge clients (my first official event was at the Big Brother House!!), there’s a lot of focus on the brand and image of the PR company, on being seen to do things a certain way… it felt a lot like it was more about dressing up and going to posh events than about the art. More than a little bit snooty. And everything so corporate – branded giveaways, company colours, letterheads – all felt so fake.
However, I will say that I think that experience was very much coloured by the particular agency I was working for – I have since spent a lot of time with other PRs, some of which do agency work, and found that this is more about this particular PR than the industry as a whole. I would generalise that independents move more quickly, can be more interactive and flexible, and I much, MUCH prefer it.
Before you were a PR, what did you think PRs did all day, and how does this compare to your experience as a PR?
It’s almost exactly as you might expect. Lots and lots and lots of emails and phone calls, plenty of time in meetings, lots of visiting rehearsals and getting stuck in, and one or two press nights a week with copious drinking.
It’s fulfilled everything I expected it to – the only thing that surprised me was how lonely it can be when you’re spending days working without meetings or anything, and then it’s much like other work-from-home jobs – you, a laptop, a cup of tea, and that’s it.
In our email correspondence, you said a really interesting phrase, ‘The dark side of PR’, in regards to your experience when you started in the industry. Can you expand on that? Is this something that you feel is present within the whole industry?
I think there’s a “dark side” to most industries – there’s good practices and bad practices everywhere. PR has a reputation as a “dark art” because it’s a bit mysterious – people don’t really know what a PR actually does, or whether it’s predominantly skill or a well-maintained little black book of contacts that you’re buying. It’s also incredibly hard to quantify, yet is always paid handsomely. It’s very easy to abuse all of those qualities.
And that’s where this “dark side” comes in – it’s very easy for bad practices to become a modus operandi. For example, I maintain a low price structure, and charge less than £1000 per project on principle – I don’t raise prices for companies that might be able to afford more, but I do reduce if companies can’t afford me but the work sounds good, I have time and they clearly need the help. I could easily hike prices up and do less work, but that’s not what this is about for me.
However, a PR can easily stiff a humongous cultural boondoggle with money coming out of their ears for large sums of money, and then try and charge the same to the lowly fringe/Off West End/touring show – and because people don’t know any better, they assume that’s the going rate and just pay it.
And that’s just one example – there are so many others: individual PRs hiring other PRs to form an agency but employing them as freelance to avoid minimum wage and benefits, bosses bad-mouthing their juniors to make themselves look good (because image is everything), blatant lying about work done because it’s so difficult to track, slagging off clients behind their backs, slagging off other PRs (even calling them “the enemy”), sending colleagues to meetings/events because you “can’t be bothered”… I’ve seen all of these and, when called on it, the reaction is always the same – “it’s what everyone else does”.
Which, thankfully, isn’t true – there are plenty of brilliant PRs out there. There are people who work tirelessly, who focus on the art and the criticism and the line where they engage, who talk to each other and are friendly, even polite when it comes to swapping clients… Nobody’s perfect all of the time, but luckily there are plenty of people out there separating the wheat from the chaff and then talking to each other (and their clients) about it.
So, long answer but yes – there is a “dark side”, but it gets uncovered. People come and go in this industry quickly.
What’s really funny is that PRs and journalists are so similar; PRs want reviews for their clients, journalists want to publish reviews in their publications, so we have a shared goal, in a way. But it seems that we can rub each other up the wrong way. Why do you think that is?
I think the goals are similar, but not same: a journalist wants to review/preview the hottest, most exciting new thing that’s going to get their publication bought/read, and the PR is trying to convince the journalist that their latest client IS that hottest, most exciting new thing – whether they actually are or not! I think there’s quite a widespread belief that PRs are quite disingenuous – whatever their client says, they parrot, regardless of whether it’s true or not. And I think this is partially true – all the PR has is what the client says about the show, or previous work they’ve experienced.
This is why I try not to give value judgements of a show I’m working on before I’ve seen it – and I always wait until press night to watch a full run for exactly that reason. If it’s shit, I can’t keep pitching it well!
I think journalists also like to think (and rightly so, in some cases) that they are cultural arbiters – they know what’s going to be good. So someone telling them what’s going to be good will always rub them up the wrong way – no need to explore or have spent 30 years doing this, some yahoo PR will send you everything you need to know to write a short news item and suddenly even the smallest, most inexperienced reporter can replicate your insight.
It’s no surprise that PR has flourished as journalism/media has become much more complicated and multi-platform – with such a scattered way of engaging with the press, do you need more members of the press, or more people to get your story to the last few journalists left?
I can’t go any further without asking this question, how did it feel to suddenly go from being the reviewer to being the promoter?
Very strange! I used lots of phrases like “switching sides” and “defecting” when I did because that’s how it felt – like I was betraying the profession and joining the other side. It feels less like us-and-them now – a couple of months was enough to see that, actually, the work is much the same, just who you’re writing your copy for is different. And I miss being as opinionated as I used to be😉
Did you have any misgivings about making the transition from critic to PR?
Not really – it felt like a natural progression, once the dust had settled. At the time, I just needed to support my family – and the speed and comfort with which I took to it was more than enough to banish any lingering worries.
Journalism is changing and while theatre bloggers are becoming increasingly visible and respected, there seems to be another side of the coin, sites that pop up overnight, unscrupulous writers, people with little media training and no idea of press ethics, people with some kind of ‘agenda’, the list goes on. As a PR, how do you choose who to approach and why?
On the whole, I give everyone a fair try – in the end, the more coverage I secure for my client, the happier everyone is. But if it becomes clear that certain sites are operating under dubious circumstances, or just not run very professionally, they tend to fall off my list. It’s very hard to tell these days which is which – but normally working with the same editors most days will give you a good idea which one to work with and which ones to avoid.
I also think, though, that this is the way journalism is headed – opinionated single writers with little editorial control, so the above problems will just become more prevalent. It’s really a question of quality – if the writing’s good, it’s hard to be too judgemental!
What would you say the biggest challenge is when you’re trying to get those all-elusive critical bums on seats?
The big national newspapers. They’re all collapsing in terms of sales, trying to plug that hole with an online presence that has to be free, thus brings in no revenue except advertising, and the inches spent on arts coverage is shrinking daily. Unless it’s the West End or very high-profile, getting a national in is very difficult indeed.
The bizarre thing is, it’s not as if a national review actually helps that much in bringing in an audience – local papers and industry-specifics like The Stage have a much better audience return, but that’s what the clients always want – nationals.
What’s the quickest way for a client to piss off their PR?
Assume they know better than you do. I’m not saying I always know better (FAR from it), but there are industry practices that come and go, and producers often blithely assume, even though they’ve hired someone who specialises in this area, that they know better. This is where PR being the “dark art” bites PRs in the ass.
Some fun examples – the producer emailing/phoning/tweeting at high-profile journalists who’ve already responded to a press release, hoping that a personal, not-at-all embarrassing prostration will help them get that elusive review; the producer rewriting the press release because “your copy was too sales-y” and then journalists contacting you asking what the copy means; the producer angrily telling you that the journalist’s review is “wrong” (because it’s bad) and asking you to call the editor… and that’s all this week!
In the same vein, what do some journalists do that really piss off PRs?
It’s hard to get pissed off with journos – they’re working for next to nothing, so everything they do is a huge boon. I find that journalists who’ve been around the block a bit can be a little tetchy about whether they’ll have to sit next to bloggers, but that’s more them bemoaning their failing industry than moaning at you.
I think it’s editorial inaccuracy that really grinds my gears – when a review is published with the wrong title, or the lead actor’s name is wrong. It drives the entire company mad and makes me feel pernickety when I contact them about it. No one wins.
Kate Copstick made a really good point on the Grouchy Club podcast recently when discussing reviews. To paraphrase, she feels that a lot of people think that they are entitled to a review at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Is this something that you’ve come across with a client, or a potential client, and if so, how do you deal with it?
All of the time! That isn’t just an Edinburgh problem at all… I think I’ll answer this with an example, as it really proves the point:
A recent pitch for work saw me being interviewed, and the client said that the main thing they wanted was a Guardian review. Everything else came second – The Guardian was all that she really wanted. I explained that we can certainly pitch for The Guardian, but in the meantime I would also focus on widespread blogger support, as they have a large shared audience, and local newspapers/TV etc. as that seems to do more for audiences. This client wouldn’t have it – it’s The Guardian or nothing! – so I didn’t get the contract.
That client then found another PR (who promised The Guardian, evidently). The show had little blogger support, little local support, but The Guardian did come – after months of pleading emails, tweets and general hand-wringing. And they hated it.
Did they hate it because they didn’t like the show, or because they were badgering into attending? Hard to say. But this producer’s sense of entitlement lost her a paying audience, the respect of her peers, and she paid a fortune for the second PR – for nothing.
Obviously, that’s an extreme example – but yes, feeling like you’re entitled to be seen because you’re making an effort is catastrophic. If you feel entitled to be reviewed, hire a PR – they’re going to stand you the best chance of being covered, but don’t think that you’re special. There’s over 3,500 shows this year – nobody’s THAT special.
If one of your clients was unhappy with a review of their work, what would you do to help them?
I’m a big believer in owning your bad reviews – unless you’re working in a nice big theatre with an excellent reputation, most of your audience is going to be friends, friends of friends and people who read reviews of Off West End/Fringe plays – that’s not a humongous cohort. You need to make sure that everyone in that grouping knows about your show, knows that it’s happening, and knows that you believe in it. That you care about it.
If The Stage turns around, gives it 1 star and says it’s awful – own it. Post it on social media. Make it a clarion call to all of your friends – “The Stage slagged off my play – what do you think?” That will get you more audience than you might think. Rally your supporters – and get them to rally their supporters to come down and support you. You’d be surprised how well that works
I have to ask; star ratings: yay or nay?
Yay – it’s an easily digestible shorthand that is a huge boon to marketing (there’s on 140 characters in a tweet!). It’s reductive, but so is a review – it’s just LESS reductive. It’s an easy way to get one person’s opinion – worth your time or not? It also depends on your audience – if you’re writing short online reviews with lots of punk and panache – star rate. If you’re writing a 1000-2000 word think-piece that eruditely examines the piece – there’s no need.
In a similar way, how do you feel about the much-maligned three-star review? Are they good, or do they get unfairly maligned by performers, PRs, etc?
The problem with 3 stars is that it means absolutely nothing. Is the show good? Sort of. Bits work. It’s fine. It’s the kinda of endorsement that has completely the opposite effect – it makes the show sound boring. It didn’t get you passionate about it or angry with it. It didn’t engage or interest you enough to care.
But it does also have a place – there are plenty of shows that fall into that category. Shows that are perfectly grand, but there’s nothing really stirring about them. The problem isn’t that the 3 star review exists – it’s that 3 star shows exist.
What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve had to face as a PR, and how did you overcome it?
Going independent. Agency work may have had its problems, but it was secure. I told myself that I would accept a large pay cut and work with my partner at the time to make ends meet – but also set myself the goal of exceeding my previous employer in terms of clients and income by operating more fairly, engaging with artists directly and just being nicer and less back-biting.
Big ambitions, with the knowledge that I probably wouldn’t succeed at all of them – which I think is how one writes a vision statement! The tussling with the previous agency at first was fierce, but has now died down – and I’m certainly earning more than I did being an underpaid minion.
I feel like I’m doing everything I set out to do, and being rewarded for it fairly – but the challenge now is to keep that going!
At the moment, it seems like the only way for young people to get their foot in the door of the arts, be it PR, performing, writing, directing, etc, is to do unpaid or poorly-paid internships. How do you feel about this practice?
Let’s talk brass tacks – there aren’t that many jobs in the arts. There never have been, and as budgets and grants reduce, they’ll become even fewer. An entirely generation was sold that going to university and studying the arts would get you a job in the arts – and it’s turned out not to be true. Actors are sold this in drama schools every day – that there’s plenty of work out there for them. It’s a lie.
So when you have an armada of young people who desperately want arts jobs but have no cash to employ them, what do you do? Employ them for cheap, or nothing at all – it’s all worked like clockwork, although I don’t think there’s a shadowy overlord anywhere cackling maniacally – I think it’s just down to some very bad education policies in the mid-80s.
But aside from that – it’s an unpleasant reality that many arts jobs are earned by virtue of spending some time working for free. And I think the real arbiter here needs to be the person accepting this kind of work in the first place.
If you’re working for free for a company that GENUINELY can’t afford you and you’re doing work that you value – I say go for it. If even one of those points doesn’t apply – stand your ground and demand something. Is someone getting richer from your free time? Is there no way to create a salary for you? Is the work even any good? You need to ask yourself all of these questions to even consider this kind of work – because if it isn’t, the people employing you aren’t people you want to be associated with in the first place.
I realise that this question might be a little odd, and I don’t mean it to sound disrespectful, but do you think theatre companies need to hire a PR company? Should they shell out big bucks for a big name agency? Go for someone like you? Or do their own thing?
Unequivocally. PR being handled by non-PRs is embarrassing to watch – the rules change every day, sites and editors come and go so quickly that, unless you’re spending every day at the coalface, you’re not going to know how to even begin to approach journalists.
Now, I don’t believe that bigger money means a better PR – it’s about equivalence. Is the PR you’re hiring working at the level that you do – similar theatres and companies? Frequently? Then they’ll know who to pitch your show to. Is the PR you’re hiring working with a lot of different people? How many at one time? Are the shows always the same? Is there going to be a problem with overlap? Then find someone who isn’t, or talk to the PR about it – they can’t be in two places at once or email the same journalist 6 different releases on the same day – who’s getting the short shrift?
As a side note – this is a particular problem in Edinburgh. I’m handling 8, but they’re all different – Shakespeare, modern, kids shows… But if your PR is handling 25 new writing shows, you’re gonna get lost.
Scout them out. Ask other producers/arts professionals you know for suggestions. You’re hiring this person – it should be someone you can get on with, someone who you can trust, and someone who looks right for the job. Don’t just go with the first person you meet – take your time, interview properly. How they make time for the interview and how amenable they are to making your life easier is a good indicator of how much of their time your worth.
Ask about how they work – ask about practices, who they would approach for your show and how. Of course, I’m in favour of PRs like myself – one-man bands generally are busier but won’t fob off your work on an underpaid assistant who only works 11-2 Wednesdays to Fridays.
Generally speaking, you should be hiring someone who understands you, how you work, and your plans. Someone who shares in your desire to see the show put up (send them a script – see how many of them actually read it!). Someone who you click with.
That being said – PRs are professional shysters. They specialise in getting on with people quickly and well, so look out for the common techniques: mirroring (where they imitate your body language); NLP (using language to make it sound like they’re brilliant and they understand); wearing sexy/revealing clothing (yes, seriously); not to mention outright flirting, accent mimicry and a thousand other little tricks. The fact that you get on immediately might just be how they operate. And this is said as someone who does all of these – well, not quite all (I look terrible in a push-up bra).
What advice would you have for anyone doing their own PR at the Fringe or elsewhere?
Oh heavens – I could go into endless dos and don’ts, but I think, if you can’t afford a PR, the main thing you need to consider is what it is about what you’re doing that’s interesting. And be brutal with yourself – challenge your beliefs that something may or may not be interesting.
Ask friends, both industry and non-industry – you want both to attend. Come up with one main argument – this is the main focus of your release. Then TELL EVERYONE. Contact everyone you know who is a journalist, knows a journalist, once shared a lift with a journalist – if you don’t tell anyone your show is on, why on Earth would they come and see it?
Full details of Chris Hislop’s clients, including the shows that he’s working with at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, can be found at his website, www.chrishislop.com