Tag Archives: Arts PR

Trash Interviews Chris Hislop

8 Jul
Chris Hislop, image by Flavia Fraser-Cannon

Chris Hislop, image by Flavia Fraser-Cannon

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

The Things an EdFringe PR Cannot Do and Other Observations by an Absent Critic

27 Aug
Image by Anne, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by Anne, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe finished yesterday, on Bank Holiday Monday, which meant, as Edinburgh regulars like John Fleming know, that all the shops in the city were open, but all the banks were closed. Welcome to Edinburgh, we do things differently in August.

This year, I also decided to do things differently by taking a year out from the Fringe after five consecutive years of reviewing at the festival. I popped a quick “I won’t be at the Fringe, sorry” notice on my Contact Me page, and cleared my diary for the entire month of August for the first time since 2009. It felt good.

Despite the much-needed break, my absence gave me a mild case of the fear of missing out, and so, I often sauntered through Bristo Square, Fringe Central, North Bridge et al, to see what was going on. On one of these trips, I met my friend Beryl for coffee. There are two things that you need to know about my dear Beryl: Beryl is not their real name but they are A Very Good Theatre PR.

“The thing is, ” began Beryl, after inhaling her colourful cardboard cup of frothy, overpriced coffee, “that a lot of the national critics have stayed away from the Fringe this year, which some clients are finding very hard to accept.”

“I have this one client; they have a great show, they’ve had consistently good reviews, but they want the national press in, and I can’t contact journalists who aren’t at the Fringe and have no intention of coming to the Fringe.”

The lack of well-established broadsheet publications at this year’s festival has not gone unnoticed, and some of the biggest names in theatre criticism, such as Ian Shuttleworth and Mark Shenton have chosen to stay at home.

“But, they just won’t listen.” Continued Beryl. “I’ve sent them emails carefully explaining why the National press aren’t coming to review them. If they hadn’t had any reviews then I would understands, but they’ve had over 10 reviewers so far, and that’s still not good enough. In fact, they’ve started demanding that I do things that I just can’t do, it’s not my job and it’s not how PR works.”

“What kind of things?” I asked, cradling my own freakishly expensive cup of joe, “I’m impressed that you’ve managed to get 10 separate publications to review their show, that’s incredible! There are people at this festival that dream of getting just one review!”

Beryl gazed miserably into her spent cup of corporate pick-me-up and explained: “Most of our contact has been via email, but the other day the producer phoned me, he’d just finished reading The Scotsman‘s review of the show and he didn’t like that they’d given it 3 stars.”

“You need to phone The Scotsman,” he said, “and get them to change it to 4 stars.”

“That isn’t how it works!” I cried.

“I know,” sighed Beryl, “I tried to explain How It Works, but he was having none of it. He also didn’t like it when he ‘discovered’ that the reviewer was – shock horror – a freelance journalist – not a staff writer and that they were – gasp – only 24.”

“I explained that the writer, despite the mortal sin of being younger than 25, was, in fact, a well-respected critic and an award-winning reviewer who writes for several national publications, but he still wasn’t happy.”

“And they haven’t paid me.”

I slammed my coffee down. “So, in a festival of 3,193 shows, performed in 299 venues, in a year when critics seem to be abandoning the Fringe, you and you alone, have managed to convince 10 critics to review this one show, and they haven’t paid you?”

Beryl nodded. “They paid a deposit but they were meant to pay the first instalment on the 1st of August, which they haven’t. I’ve been emailing the producer about it, and he’s ignored me.”

A few days later, I sent Beryl a text message to ask if the producer had coughed up the money.

“Nope.” She replied, “But I did get a phone call saying the lighting designer hadn’t been paid and the producer had given them my number…go figure.”

Beryl, like I said earlier, is A Very Good Theatre PR. But even Very Good Theatre PRs can’t control reviewers because reviewers have free will whether we like it or not.

You can control the show, you can control advertising and you can control yourself, but you cannot control the reviews.

There will always be things that your PR cannot do, so don’t demand the impossible and pay your staff, for God’s sake, because bad press travels fast before, during and after the Fringe.

How To Get Reviewed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

5 Jun
2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe image by zoetnet, shared under a Creative Common Licence

2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe image by zoetnet, shared under a Creative Common Licence

Hold on to your hats, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is nigh! After months of anticipation, the long-awaited official launch of the Fringe takes place today in Scotland’s rather dreich capital city.

For years, the Fringe has been known as the place where some of the world’s most popular comedians, theatre companies, playwrights and directors were officially ‘discovered’, and because of this, thousands of people flock to the city every year, hoping to be the next big thing. They want to get those coveted critical bums on seats and nab a five-star review.

The Fringe, as we all know, is the world’s biggest arts and culture festival, so, how do you approach a critic and (hopefully) convince them to review your show?

A Note on Reviews

Before I discuss the finer points of Contacting a Reviewer 101, I have to explain the role of the critic, because I’ve found that some practitioners and PRs seem to be unsure about what it is that critics are supposed to do.

As we all know, critics write reviews, this is a given, but a review is like an omen; it can either be good or bad. A critic will not write a positive review just because they’ve been invited to a show; they will write a review based on their experience and it will (or should) be published in a timely fashion.

The critic is under no obligation to write either a good or a bad review, they are under obligation to write a truthful review that is helpful to the audience. The critic is loyal only to the reader; not to the venue, director, actor or playwright.

Therefore, if you want coverage that is uniformly positive and says exactly what you want it to say, then it’s better to buy an ad. If you want a reviewer’s professional opinion on your show, that you can then use in your publicity material, email the editor. Otherwise, contact the advertising department and pay for an advert.

Prepare Now

One of the more frustrating experiences for a Fringe critic is being contacted about a show that they would have really liked to review – after the Fringe has begun. This is because by then, their reviewing schedule has been confirmed and it’s highly unlikely that the critic will be able to fit the show into their itinerary.

You are much more likely to get a reviewer into your show if you contact them before the festival. I’ve been getting Fringe PRs since late April, but an editor friend of mine got her first one in February. So, if you’ve not started contacting the journalists you want to target yet, then do it as soon as possible, while the nation’s critics are thinking about their reviewing schedule.

Have Something to Say

When I worked in online PR, I often had to write press releases that weren’t newsworthy. I know, I hated it too. This was because we had clients that wanted a certain number of press releases written and submitted every month and so, I had to find something, if anything, to say about the client and their products that would (hopefully) appeal to journalists.

I did this by trying to find a newsworthy angle on the story or client. Sometimes it was because there was a breaking news story that had something to do with their industry, sometimes it was because something impressive had happened within the company, but whatever I chose to write about, it had to be newsworthy.

Journalists are always looking for newsworthy releases, we’re forever searching for a different angle to write about on the pressing issues of today. Not only do we need this news, we need to be the first to report it, so we want an exclusive. We want to get some exceptional information before our rivals and we have to be able to shout about it.

Everyone has a story; what makes your show, your company, your production stand out? Why should a critic review, or even preview your show before the Fringe as opposed to a rival piece in the same venue? Find your angle, find your voice, find your audience.

Press Release Etiquette

When it comes to press releases, everyone’s different. But, most critics I know agree on one thing; please don’t attach your PR as a PDF.

PDFs are great –  if you don’t want to copy and paste information from them or edit them in any way. So, if I’m trying to copy and paste your listings information to put it in my calendar or spreadsheet, the nature of a PDF means that I can’t do that.

However, attachments in general can trigger the wrath of a million fiery suns in even the most patient of critics. Some don’t download properly, they can contain viruses and some just aren’t compatible with the software on a journalist’s computer. So, instead of attaching anything, or adding a link to an external site in order to view your PR, copy and paste it into the body of your email; this saves time and effort later on.

If you are sending press releases for more than one show, then send one email per show, so that the email can be found quickly if needed. Also, it’s really helpful to put the name of the show, the venue and the dates in the subject of the email. If you do this, your PR will be a beacon of hope in a very overwhelmed journalist’s inbox. And please, don’t be the asshole that sends 22 attachments in one email.

Remember to check, double-check and triple check your listings information, such as dates, times and venue, a small hiccup here can have big consequences. You might find this Arts PR post that I wrote after the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe helpful.

Be Human

In our digital age, it’s become far too easy to forget that the critics are actually people. I know we can have this reputation of being utterly terrifying, humourless, otherworldly sods who are only happy when we’re feasting on the broken dreams of Fringe casualties, but underneath that, we are human.

One of the things about being Homo sapiens is that we respond to being spoken to like living, breathing entities. We don’t want a generic email that doesn’t start with a greeting, demands a review, or fires the same promotional message at us repeatedly. We want to be able to read about the people and the passion at the heart of the project.

You don’t have to write a critic a novel detailing why you’re inviting them to your show, but you can personalise your email. This takes time, but it makes your email stand out. And let me tell you, when all the emails you’ve received that day have been overly promotional, full of horrendous PR buzzwords and have been devoid of any human emotion, getting a brief email that simply begins with a greeting and your name makes you sit up and pay attention.

Twit to Woo?

Social media is marvellous, isn’t it? It allows you to find and contact almost anyone, which means it’s a great place to reach out to a critic or publication. However, while social networking sites like Twitter will help you find the right people to invite to your show, I could caution against using it as a pitching tool.

The reason for this is simple: anything you put on social media is in the public domain, which means that everybody can read it, unless you have a private account. However, when you’re contacting a journalist, especially if you have an exclusive about your show, the open nature of social media means that your news will no longer be an exclusive, because everyone will have read about it online first.

Too often, Twitter accounts fire out the same promotional tweet to journalists and not only does it ensure that your news gets lost in the ether, it also looks lazy, so if you can’t be bothered to reach out properly, why should the critic go to see your show?

Feel free to make first contact on social media; follow the journalist’s account, say a quick hello and ask the critic if you can send them a PR, but don’t take up too much of their time. Social media is often treated like a platform for broadcasting, but it’s really for being sociable and engaging. You can also chat to the critic, be friendly and focus on building a long-term professional relationship with them, not just a filthy and unremarkable #EdFringe quickie. The contacts you make this year will remember you next year.

During the Fringe it’s nice to have somewhere to escape, to vent, and that’s what I use my Twitter account (*cough* @trashtaylor *cough*) for. Remember that the critic will have had lots of messages from other people trying to get them to review them too, so take it easy, you are in their space, be nice, be polite and have fun. Also, don’t forget that you are representing your show on social media, so don’t say anything stupid.

 The Follow-Up

One part of the process that some people rely on too heavily is the follow-up. While it’s understandable that someone may be anxious that their PR hasn’t reached its recipients, please rest assured that it has been received and it has been read. You can always email again, but ask yourself, do you have anything else to add, such as a piece of news, or the addition of extra dates?

Sending the same PR again is unnecessary, because you’ll just be repeating yourself. Today, I got a second email about a Fringe production and then a tweet from the show’s producer within a very short length of time, both of which told me nothing new about the piece. Don’t be the annoying person who constantly emails and calls publications; it won’t make critics magically find space for your show in their already packed schedules.

Is there anything else you really want to know? Is this year your first Fringe? Why not comment below and tell me?

Why Your EdFringe PR Campaign Sucks

3 Jun
Fringe Posters image by Daveybot, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Fringe Posters image by Daveybot, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

If you’re a performer or part of a theatre company that’s handling your own PR campaign at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, perhaps for the first time, there are three things that form the basis of any Edinburgh Festival Fringe PR campaign; discipline, research and hard work. I know, that’s pretty obvious, but while the Edinburgh Fringe is presented as a fun and unmissable festival (it is) it’s also a bit like a sewer; what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.

But I’m Only at the Fringe for Three Days

Three days? That’s brilliant! Shorter runs at the Fringe are becoming quite popular for various reasons, and the length of your run doesn’t limit your PR campaign. Get in there early, contact journalists; send them an exclusive invite to your first show and promote the Hell out of it.

But I Want to Party Hard

While it may look like the Fringe is one big party, the reality is that the festival is hard work for everyone involved in the Fringe. For performers handling their own PR, the Fringe presents an almost unique experience in terms of promotion.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is one of the biggest, if not the biggest arts festival in the world; this year a record 2,871 shows will be performed by 24,107 artists in 273 venues across Edinburgh. The number of shows at this year’s Fringe has increased by 6.5% compared to last year. So, if you want to party, do it in moderation, you have a job to do.

But The Fringe is Too Big

As the Fringe grows, so do the opportunities for marketing a show and producing a strong and unforgettable Fringe PR campaign. A bigger Fringe means more journalists, more publications, more blogs, more audience members, more venues. It means more work to publicise a show successfully.

It means that your Fringe PR campaign must be as important as all other Fringe preparation. Think about all the work you have put into your show so far: the planning, the auditions, the creating of sets, costumes, the booking of a venue, the organisation of Fringe accommodation. Why should PR take a back seat?

So, I Just Shout Loud Enough and I’ll Get Reviewed?

It’s often said that the person who shouts the loudest has the most influential voice in the room, but for the Fringe, and for wider PR, I would argue that having the right voice, rather than the loudest voice is more desirable to journalists.

There is so much ‘noise’ generated by PRs and performers during the Fringe; journalists will be getting promotional messages fired at them daily, so, you have to find a way to make your voice more noticeable and most of all, more inviting to them.

How Do I Make My Voice Heard?

You need to target the right journalists, the right publications, and promote what it is about your show, your piece that will appeal to them. If your show is a political piece, are there journalists who specialise in reviewing and previewing political theatre? Is there a specific publication that tailors to your target audience?

Make a list of your Unique Selling Points (USPs) such as, if this is your first year at the Fringe,  are you performing the world première of your show? What is it that you can offer journalists the competition can’t offer them? Why should they choose you over the thousands of other artists at the festival? Why do you want a journalist to review your show? Once you are clear about this, then you will find it easier to put together your PR campaign.

How Should I Submit My PR?

Once the PR is written and the right journalists have been identified, how will you submit your PR? Will you post it if you have the publication’s address? It’s not as immediate as email, but some journalists prefer it. If you’re unsure, contact the journalist or publication and ask.

If you email it, do you attach it as a separate document, or copy and paste it into the body of the email? Personally, I prefer the copy and paste method, which means I’m not constantly downloading documents. Remember that it needs to be easy for a journalist to find your PR during the busy festival period, so use the show name, venue and company name in the subject line of your email.

Many journalists, especially me and Thom Didbin from Annuals of Edinburgh Stage will thank you for doing this.

How will you begin your communication? A “Hello” is always nice. Seriously, say “Hi”, try to engage with the journalist – good PR is about building lasting relationships, if you get along with a journalist one year, they will remember you the next and might be more likely to see your shows in the future.

What About Social Media?

Social media now forms a pretty big part of any Fringe campaign, and so contacting journalists through this medium, in my opinion, is fine, you just to get your approach right. Start talking to the journalist before the start of the Fringe, build up a rapport; don’t be all promotional all the time.

Simply tweeting a journalist you’ve never spoken to before and asking them to “Please RT” a promotional tweet about your show is lazy – talk to them, don’t just use them as a mouthpiece for your work.

Do Not Do Any Of These Things in Your PR Campaign

Below is a list of suggestions for things not to do when you’re handling your own PR campaign during the Fringe, outside of the Fringe and in general. Personalising your email goes a long, long way.

  1. Email a press release with the subject line ‘Press Release’
  2. Send out a mass email beginning with: ‘Dear EdFringe Reviewer/Promoter/Press Officer/VIP/Broadcaster/Supporter
  3. Send out an email that begins with “Dear Chesney” when the editor’s name is Bella
  4. Constantly email and phone the office of a magazine/newspaper demanding that they review your show
  5. Tweet the same invite verbatim to at least 25 reviewers or publications in a row
  6. Email the same PR multiple times
  7. Email an ‘extended’ PR which gives no new information
  8. Email a PR that gives the wrong start time/the wrong date/the wrong director/the wrong actor/the wrong venue
  9. Write a PR that starts with your star ratings and reviews
  10. Write a PR that uses lots and lots of different colours, fonts, sizes and is not clearly formatted
  11. Write a PR that doesn’t begin with a greeting, but ends with an email signature
  12. Not using bcc in marketing emails
  13. Get the publication name wrong
  14. Issue a demand, not an invitation
  15. Not say thank you to a reviewer or publication for a good review
  16. Send more than one press release per email
  17. Threaten to sue over a bad review – this will not work out well for anybody

Whether this is your first Fringe or your tenth, PR is an important part of your preparation and so, it’s important to keep on top of it, and don’t leave it to chance.

Have you got any advice for companies doing their own EdFringe PR? Get in touch and let me know.

Seven Tips for the Arts PR

28 Oct

Ah, PR types, press releases, media officers, press offices, I love you all dearly, and I need you in my professional life. But there are certain things I simply cannot abide in arts PR, and they must end, frankly, as they annoy me, and they give PRs a bad name – and there are a lot of good PRs out there that I enjoy very good working relationships with – and I don’t want to lump them into the same category as the bad ones.

So, to be blunt, if you work in arts PR, or if you want to work in the industry, here are some tips from one cynical, hardened arts journalist to you. Pay attention, and we’ll get on just fine.

1. Email the Right Publication

Granted, this may sound like obvious advice, but in reality, emailing the editor of Auto Trader magazine about a new performance of  Othello isn’t going to get you coverage. Granted, that is an extreme example, but it’s important to remember that creating a suitable and relevant list of publications to contact is a good idea. This will involve some work and research on your part, but it will be worth it, so make sure you know what publication to contact for arts coverage, and whether they are relevant to you. For example, if you are trying to drum up media coverage for a final year show at a local arts college, email publications that deal with visual art coverage, never assume that the term ‘arts’ – which usually stands for film, TV, theatre and radio – includes visual art as well. Research, and find out who is best to contact or you will waste your time.

2. Email the Right Person

While time and effort will go into identifying suitable publications to contact, the same amount of time must go into contacting the relevant section editor. While some PRs think it best to contact the Editor-in-Chief, this can be pointless, as the Editor-in-Chief will be busy sorting out the whole paper/magazine/website and not have the time to pass on your email to the relevant section editor. Find out who you need to contact directly, so if you’re representing  a band, find out the name, email address and/or phone number of the music editor. If you’re looking for theatre coverage, contact the theatre editor. If you can’t find an email address for these people, find out if there is an arts editor you can contact, because they will be able to point you in the right direction.

3. Get the Editor’s Name Right

Again, this sounds simple, but you’d be amazed how easy it can be to use the wrong name in email correspondence. During the Fringe I was called many names by PRs and theatre companies in email correspondence. I was referred to as Andrew on more than one occasion, I was usually called John by most people, which was logical, as John Roberts is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of TPR. A very nice sounding man started his email with ‘Hello Ben’, by which I assume he meant Ben Judge, the editor of Fest magazine, although I have never found out if Ben in turn opened an email that enthusiastically cried: ‘Dear Amy’. Another person began their email with ‘Dear Anne’, while some stuck to more formal titles, with Ms Taylor, Miss Taylor and even Mrs Taylor all getting a look in. For future reference, please call me Amy, or Ms Taylor – Mrs Taylor is my mother.

The trick is to make it personal, there’s nothing more disheartening than opening an email that begins with ‘Dear Edinburgh Fringe Reviewer’, ‘Dear Journalist’, ‘Dear Editor’ or my favourite, ‘Dear Writer.’ Find out the editor’s name, spell it right and use it in the email.

4. Remember a PR is an Invitation, Not a Demand

In all email communications, it’s nice to be nice. Introduce yourself to the journalist if you’ve never contacted them before, be conversational, be polite, but don’t forget to tell them precisely why you’ve contacted them. Inform the writer that the reason you’re contacting them is to invite them to review your show/film/album etc. If a journalist sent an unsolicited and pushy email to a PR, that said something along the lines of: ‘What does it take to get a pair of tickets to your show?’ Then, the chances are that the PR might think the journalist, is, to paraphrase, a little bit rude. I’ve had emails from PRs to that effect, that have no greeting, just a demand to ‘come and see our show’, or to insist that I ‘send a reviewer along, because we’ve not had any reviews, yet, and we’re getting a bit pissed off’. Giving your email a title like ‘REVIEWER WANTED’ will not inspire me to send someone along – tell me why you’ve contacted me, be welcoming, make me want to spend what little time I might have in the evening or at the weekend reviewing your work.

5. Answer Your Emails In a Timely Manner

I know journalists can get a little lax with their emails, but while we can only work on that, we need the support of a good PR who responds to our emails quickly. There have been times when I’ve received an invite to a show, and responded asking for tickets for a certain date, only have to follow-up 8 days later when I’ve still not had response from the PR. In one case, I had to email the PR two more times; in the first email I asked for clarification of the press tickets, and in the second email I had to say that I needed a response by a certain date, or I couldn’t confirm that I’d be able to attend. I hated issuing a deadline like that, but it worked.

6. Keep Your Promises

If you state in your PR that you can accommodate a reviewer on any given date or any given venue if the show is touring, then please, stand by that promise. Recently, I received a PR for a show that said reviewers were welcome on any of their tour dates, but when I requested press tickets for a certain date in the run, I was informed that they only wanted reviewers to attend on the opening night, as that was ‘easiest’ for them.

They did offer to see if they could get me tickets for the date and venue that I had requested: “I could try to contact the venue and see what can be done…” but they made it sound it like was such an effort for them, and you know what? I wasn’t asking for the moon on a plate, I was merely requesting what their PR had promised – that any date, and any venue was fine. Don’t make promises that you can’t keep.

7. Communicate, Communicate, Dear God, Communicate

Similarly, I’m hearing more and more stories about critics at smaller publications and websites receiving invites to review work, but when they requested tickets, they were rejected by the PR, as they really wanted reviewers from ‘bigger publications’, such as The Guardian. This is rude. It’s like sending an RSVP to a wedding only for the bride to write to you to tell you that you’re also not welcome on the big day. During the Fringe, one of my writers had a press ticket request turned down by a PR with no reason given – what made this even more irritating was the fact that TPR had reviewed the company in question at several times previously and had given them very positive reviews each time. Always check with the company/band/performer before turning down requests, as they could have good working relationships with a number of writers and editors.

Essentially, if the PR fucks up, it reflects badly on the company that they are representing; don’t be the PR that fucks up.

KNUT

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