“If you build it, they will come,” may have worked in Field of Dreams (1989) but theatre audiences generally don’t go to see shows if they don’t know they are happening. Not only do you have to build the production, but you also need to tell people about it. An effective publicity strategy or campaign is how you reach media and audiences.
While often used synonymously, publicity and marketing are actually two different things:
- Publicity is any FREE opportunity to promote your work ie: previews, reviews, interviews, guest appearances, social media shout-outs
- Marketing is the exposure you pay for ie: ads, commercials, trailers, promoted posts
Both publicity and marketing are used to promote your show and your brand, but the two use different tools to accomplish this goal.
While people may debate the exact differences, it may be useful to think of publicity as relationship-building by bringing media and audiences to the stories around your piece and engaging with them. In publicity, the media is your audience and they are the conduit to reach the general public about your work.
If you are managing the publicity for your production, your job is to know everything about the show and be better than anyone else at communicating that information and through multiple channels. Not only do you need to know the practical points (when it is happening, where, how to get tickets), you need to know the show itself: its style, context, who’s involved, who this show would appeal to, and how it relates to what’s currently happening in the world. You have to be open to changing elements of your message as your process evolves.
When pitching media, prepare specific information or an angle that you think would resonate with the press. Don't just regurgitate the press release! Find things that are newsworthy, timely, and go beyond the press release. Write a pitch like you’re having a conversation with someone. You don’t need to pretend that you’re not pitching them, but also make sure not to have any expectations.
Make sure your language and references around the show are simple and clear - the media are not in the community in the same way artists are. Most of the people you talk to won’t be interested in theatre, arts - they’re generalists, staff writers. Use positive language when referring to your show in contrast to others - there is no need to knock down someone else's artistry in order to build yourself up. Be excited, enthusiastic, and honest about what you’re trying to accomplish.
Every time you are pitching, include an attachment or link to your press release.
You have to follow up! If you have time to give them a week to sit on it, great. Otherwise give them a couple of days, and then follow up one more time if necessary.
Be prepared to coordinate. There’s a lot of back and forth when it comes to booking interviews. It involves lots of coordination with stage management, especially when taking into account Equity guidelines. You are likely going to get the bulk of your interview requests during tech week, because that’s when you’re newsworthy to the press.
You need practice. Your pitches won't be successful at first. Don't worry. It takes time to identify what each media outlet's beats are. Remember to stay open to changing and massaging things about your message as your process evolves and as you talk to different people who are looking to cover different things.
A publicity schedule keeps you on track with all the different pieces you need to collect, stuff you have to write, and tasks you need to complete.
A publicity strategy informs how you use the materials you are making intentionally (according to the schedule) to maximize effect and impact.
Strategy includes, but is not limited to:
- Platforms you use - Which method of communications are most likely to reach your target audiences? How does one affect the other?
- Timing - When are you going to tell your target audiences about the show? Can you piggyback or partner with another similar show or event that preceeds or runs concurrently to yours that ties into the theme or location of your production?
- Language and tone - What vocabulary will you use to reach your target audience? Swearing, acronyms, shorthand, distinct cultural references, slang, etc. can either welcome or alienate people - be conscious of your choice of words.
- Which stories you pitch and to whom will depend on what narrative or brand you are trying to project.
- What you choose to disclose and not disclose - Is it a secret location? Is there a special access code online? Think Secret Shakespeare and how much of the publicity comes from not knowing which play is being done that night or who the cast is playing.
- Ticket cost and accessibility - Which audience members will that include and exclude? What does the ticket price say about your production and company values?
- Public Partners - What are their brands? What does it say that you are aligning with them?
Whether you plan it intentionally or not, everything you put into the world - its narrative, quality and how you put it there - will tell a story to people about you and your production. A successful publicity strategy will ensure the story they are getting it the one you wanted them to hear that also entices them to come see your show and TALK about it. Word of Mouth is still the BEST publicity tool.
Publicity is like a many-headed hydra - you can’t rely on only one tool to be enough. A Media Release is very important, but it still needs support from social media, and perhaps a website as well. A Facebook event can be handy as people can easily click to share, but it shouldn’t be the ONLY way you are letting people know about your show - some people aren’t on Facebook or ignore event invites, and social media algorithms can be challenging to get your event highlighted. Here are some publicity tools you should know about:
Also known as a Press Release, this is a tool that you send directly to the media to inform them of all the key details of your production. It's a good idea to send your media release 8-10 weeks before Opening Night.
A Media Kit, or Promotional Kit, is the follow-up to a Media Release that includes more information that reviewers might need to write about your work. Traditionally these have been given out close to Opening Night, but if it’s ready earlier, you can send it with the Media Release in the hopes that the info in your Media Kit could inspire a story.
Key things to note:
- Photos will go both online and, if you're lucky, in print. Quality is very important. Don’t assume your phone camera can handle it, especially with stage lighting.
- What kind of images do you find appealing in the newspaper or magazines? Aim for those qualities - contrast, brightness, clarity, colour, eye-catching. The media will usually prefer photos with unobscured faces where the subject's eyeline is visible.
- Photos in landscape orientation are more commonly used than portrait orientation.
- It's best to send media both vertical and horizontal photos for them to choose from.
- It's best to send them a variety of great photos and let them choose the ones they want. Don't include 20 files for their choosing, but you could send them 10 great options if you have them!
- Be sure to label your files clearly and appropriately. The file name should represent the name of the production and what is happening in the photo.
- A common mistake is to pick photos that have the entire cast in it vs. picking the most visually interesting photos or ones that tell a story. Reviews will never use photos with too many people in them.
- If there is no photo credit, they won’t be able to use it, so be sure to credit the photographer.
Promo photos will likely be taken before you even get into the theatre. Promo photos are a time to be artsy and interpretative; production photos are not. Promo photos don’t necessarily have all the production elements, but should support the content and style of the show and show off some actors. If a media outlet wants to do a preview of your show, they will need an image to go with the article. While it can add to your budget to have two photoshoots (negotiate with your photographer on a rate for both promo and production photos), these photos are great to have for your website and social media posts, and therefore tend to represent a worthwhile investment.
PRO TIP: You cannot submit your poster graphic as a promo photo because next to an article it will look like an advertisement and therefore something you should be paying for.
These are from the production - including costumes, lighting, sets, etc - and are taken during tech week. These are the photos media will use to accompany reviews.
Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL)
CASL explains the rules around what qualifies as spam, as well as the legalities around any spam YOU many encounter as a consumer. (The bottom line: be careful before sending out mass emails to everyone you know.)
The Vancouver Fringe has put together a great Youtube series about self promotion, applicable to both the Fringe and other independent producing. A great series to watch and learn some tips and tricks from Fringe alumni!
Free Publicity E-Books by Clutch PR
Clutch PR has free downloadable e-books that can help you become a 'PR Pro' (their words not ours). Definitely worth checking out!
B-Rebel Communications Youtube Channel
B-Rebel Communications has a fantastic Youtube Channel full of PR Tips and Tricks by Ashley Belmer - well worth watching as you plan for your production.