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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sunday Feature: Come Blow Your (Own) Horn

By Gaëtan L. Charlebois (with Barbara Ford and Estelle Rosen)

As small, indie and young companies get ready for Centaur's Wildside Festival and, soon after that, the Fringe—I remember, a few years ago when I was toiling at Hour, being asked for advice about how these kinds of companies should go about getting the word out.

I remember a few things I suggested (some of which sound puerile but which are, nevertheless, reflecting sad facts):

don't spam. Journalists - indeed, anyone who might receive your e-mail - all have spam folders and love the delete key. It's better to send out e-mail one at a time to each journalist instead of to a list; when you do a cc or bcc your elegant, lovingly worded dossier goes directly to most of our trash files. All your hard labour gets the attention we give to dick cream and Nigerian generals in exile.

- authors presenting new works must, must, must choose titles carefully. You don't have to go as far, say, as the famous Happy Cunt, but you would be wise not to be too vague with a title either (think more The Idiot and less War and Peace). Punch it up. Sight unseen I love Haunted  Hillbilly, Sexy béton and Rant Demon. I'd read the press kits. Humans (were it not written by Daniel MacIvor)...not so much. Punch, yes. It's a fine line, though, between punch and too-clever-by-half, adorable, or moronic. (I read the title Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and I would rather spray the walls with my own bone, blood and brains than attend.)

sending a photo as a thumbnail on your e-mail: good; sending a 30 meg leviathan that takes a multi-tasking computer a year to open (or, worse, gets blocked by a firewall): not good.

- when you include a phone number on a PR kit, kee-rist!,
have someone there to answer the phone. (This sounds'd be surprised how unobvious it seems to many, many companies.)

suggest angles for coverage, and make them interesting. If your play is about a prostitute and your director did ardent research, that's...nice. But if your designer is a reformed crack whore, there's the person who should be doing interviews! If the author is available, that's...nice, but it's not interesting unless the author gives a ripping interview (ie: if your writer is brill on paper but also the one who starts each anecdote with, "This is funny," but concludes all of them with "I guess you had to be there," keep him or her in a car trunk until opening night curtain call). Likewise if any of your people are douche bags keep them well away from the press. One reknowned local actor I was interviewing was such a dink I cut the slated feature on him to blurb length. Worse was the cover story I had no choice but to do on a famous Brit whose first sally in our phone chat was, "That is the stupidest question I've ever heard." My article was not a Valentine. (And, zeitgeist abounds, his work flopped royally...sadly, he went on to win an Oscar for his brilliant script for Shakespeare in Love. I still don't like him.)

- not on Facebook?
Get on. Twitter? Yup, that too. Lead or follow, it's up to you, but be there. All rules of good PR apply to your use of social networks as well...except be snappier. Facebook just hit 500 million users and is fast heading to a billion. Per capita the country that has the most FB users? Canada. Can you ignore these people in your PR? Why do I like Twitter? Because its a pitch: fascinate me in 140 characters or less. Next!

- ah!
the mailed press kit! An art form unto itself. May the publicist who once sent me a dossier wrapped around a pile of sparkles which jammed my keyboard for a month fart rainbows for a year. The chocolates looked nice, but a critic would be mad to eat anything they receive from the same postal service from which they get death threats. Enthusiasm and creativity in a kit is fine, hysteria less so. SO DON'T TELL US HOW GOOD YOUR PLAY IS!!!!!!!!!! PROVE TO US IT'S WORTH THE TIME TO SEE!!!!!!! Does your play have fine looking people shirtless, then by all means include photos. But, by God!, if I choose to go to your play your hairy-chested adonis better not have a long, flabby speech about "nucular war."

- if you plan to continue working you may just need that journo again so
follow up...or perhaps do not. Offering a small thanks for coverage or kind reviews is just common sense. A pan? Silence is golden. If you can't stand the scribe, well, that's what publicists are for: running interference. Do not, not, not do what one local actor did to me: I had just seen (and panned) a performance in which he gave long, operatic speeches in a voice that is unforgettable; then he left me an "anonymous" phone message at home telling me, "You're going down, man! You're going down!" (It scared the bejeezus out of my SO, but remained on the machine and was played at parties for months after.) Do journalists have shit-lists? Bet on it. So do actors, playwrights, designers...that's what publicists are for. (Otherwise opening nights would be like West Side Story without the nice music.)

Bottom line:
don't be dumb. I was always "out" in my writing but it was still disagreeable when one publicist sent me a so-sexy-it's-lurid photo of a lead actor and followed up with a phone call where she told me he was "Very interested" in meeting me in tones that suggested sexual favours were not out of the question. There is a vast difference between promotion and pimping.

Barbara Ford, a publicist everyone in theatre in English knows (or knows of) and now a CharPo columnist, offers these tips:
- cross-promote (w/other theatre companies and/or other cultural events)
- contests
- social networking (Facebook twitter, etc.)
- teaser YouTube visuals
- radio tix give-aways

Estelle Rosen, another who is très au courant with promotion, and also CharPo's editor, shares:
- send press releases early
- followup press release with reminded detailed info about piece, date, location
- cast member names
- good storyline
- contact info for reservations etc.


  1. Do you know how many people I have in my media list and you say I should send out a release one at a time? OY! I have to say that I often get responses mere minutes after my release goes out so I seem to have infiltrated the Junk barrier. Maybe once you've established a solid relationship with the media you get promoted out of the Junk room. I usually send a mass e-mail to start & then follow-up by targeting the media that have readerships, listenerships or viewerships that relate best to the subject matter. I hate to think that my poor defenseless press releases are going directly to the Junk pile ... a minute of silence please ... RIP.

  2. Press kits - a total thing of the past. Hyperlink all your research into the body of the release - get with the program! You're saving trees and postage if you were planning to mail them and no bulky kits for media to balance on their laps if you were handing them out at opening night. How are they supposed to hold a beer, eat munchies AND hold onto the kit at the post-show reception? Have a heart.

  3. And the great advice continues. However, allow me to get my geek on for a bit. Many email programs and servers (like Gmail) automatically place cc and bcc email into a spam or junk folder. These folders, which get packed fast, very often get mass deleted. I have noticed more companies are sending notices to each person in a list asking receivers to add their address to a contact lost or book. This way the email gets sent to the in box instead of spam. A PR person should consider a similar process, especially if theynare going to contact the people on their lists often. The problem is that many people don't don't take the time to go into their spam folder and identify its contents as non-junk so that the program or service can "learn" which stuff is okay.

  4. In addition, if I could add my communications consultant viewpoint here, there are a number of software solutions that will send out multiple e-mails to a mailing list but send them as distinct e-mails, avoiding the JunkMail issue.
    Most important, as you have both said, is to have something to say. Being on social media, having a website or having a kick-ass YouTube video, does not translate into anyone caring or writing about what you want them to write about. The story is not about your play, it is about your process and the people involved. Anyone (well, perhaps not anyone, but you get my point) can put on a play... no one can tell your story with your people in your unique manner. Use the tools and technology available, but use them to deliver a message, not just to use them.


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