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.