“If you build it, they will come” may have worked in Field of Dreams, but theatre audiences generally don’t go to see shows that they don’t know are happening. Not only do you have to build the production, you need to tell people about it and an effective publicity strategy or campaign is how you reach media and audiences.
Publicity vs. Marketing
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 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 tools of how that is accomplished are different. While people may debate the exact differences, it may be useful to think of publicity as relationship-building - bringing media and audiences to the stories around your piece and engaging with them, whereas marketing is more broadcasting your brand - you control/pay for the exact image or ad without any external interpretation you would have when being interviewed or reviewed by a media person for example.
If you are running 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: it’s style, context, who’s involved, who this show would appeal to, and how it relates to what’s currently happening in the world.
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 do and when. Some examples:
- List of Cast and Creatives
- Headshots and bios
- Up to 3 top credits per person to be listed in the media release
- Logos - production company, partners, sponsors
- Any text or materials previously written about the show including reviews, quotes, awards and nominations
- Finalized graphic design elements for posters, postcards, website, etc.
- Social media handles (cast/creatives/partners/sponsors/media) or specific hashtags
- Links for website, box office/ticketing, venue
- Accessibility instructions and/or disclaimers for production or venue
- Emails for media, Artistic Directors, cast comp list, opening night invites, other VIP guests and general mailing list of audience members (building over many productions)
- Photos: promo, production, in rehearsal action shots, costume pieces or set design, etc.
- Playwright or Director’s notes (can be useful to pull their language when writing the media release and/or to include in a media kit)
- Prizes or giveaways for online contests if applicable
- Website content - show specific or website as a whole depending on the company’s history
- Box office info and blurb
- Text for posters, postcards, etc.
- About the Company info (unless already written in which case just collect it)
- Media Release/Press Release
- Media Kit
- Show program
- Opening Night Invite
- Quippy or attention-getting social media posts
- Get artists’ sign-off on programs, photos, etc as per their contracts
- Send out media releases/press releases, media kits, opening night invites, eblasts
- Arrange program stuffing, contests, or ticket swaps
- Collect RSVPs for opening night, coordinate media tickets and VIP comps with box office
- Create front of house display
- Welcome media to Opening Night and ensure they have all the information they need
- Promote, promote, promote ALL ACTIVITIES
- Create and post engaging content to social media
- Coordinate with photographer and share photos with media
- Pitch potential stories or angles
- Share reviews
- Coordinate with the Producer and Box Office regarding ticket sales and whether there is need to adapt the Publicity strategy accordingly.
This is not necessarily a complete list, but it should give you a solid foundation to work from. As every production is different and the audience they want to attract can be very different, how productions promote themselves can also be quite unique or creative. However, certain things, like sending a media release are very standard practice if you hope to get reviewed.
Be warned: publicity takes a lot of work and requires quick responses including during the run of the show. If you are performing in the show, you probably don’t want to also be the publicist welcoming media on Opening Night when you are supposed to be warming up to perform. Even if you are working with a publicist, there is still information they will need from you the producer to be able to do their jobs effectively, so you aren’t entirely off the hook.
If you are working with a Publicist, they will give you a list of materials they require from you. They will then give you a Publicity Schedule of deadlines and dates for when they propose things will happen.
If you do not have room in your budget to hire a publicist, there are many different ways you can build a publicity schedule for yourself. Here is a sample TEMPLATE.
Create a calendar (Excel, Google Calendar, Template all options) that usually starts at least 3 months before Opening Night.
Using the list above, work backwards from Opening Night to assign deadlines for the Definites (ie. Send out Media Release), and then schedule tasks that need to happen prior to be able to meet those deadlines (ie. you can’t send a media release without box office being set up).
Start with what you know for sure, then schedule and adjust the rest leaving room for slow email responses, multiple drafts or edits, missed deadlines, approvals and sign offs, etc. Some dates to build from: Opening Night, Closing Night, Tech Week, First Rehearsal, Dora Registration, Media Release sent out.
If you are producing within a Festival, they will have a schedule for when they need specific things from you as they have to plan and go to print a lot earlier than if you were producing on your own. Their deadlines would be dates to add to your Publicity Schedule right away.
A schedule tells you when you need to have things done, but a strategy informs how you intentionally use the materials you are making (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 - ie. Don’t start heavy promotions for your Christmas show in August. Can you piggyback or partner with another similar show, event, etc. that ties into the theme or location of your production?
Language and tone - Swearing, acronyms, shorthand, distinct cultural references or slang might welcome or alienate people and is that an intentional choice?
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, or a website. 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 as some people aren’t on Facebook, ignore event invites and/or social media algorithms are challenging. Here are some of the 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 4-6 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 were given out close to Opening Night, but if it’s ready earlier, you can send with the Media Release as hopefully the info in your Media Kit could inspire a story.
Promo photos are taken before you necessarily get into the theatre. They 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 photo-shoots (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 = worthwhile investment.
Fun fact: 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 taken during tech week. These accompany Reviews.
For both Promo and Production photos, remember:
- These are going online and maybe 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
- Photos in landscape orientation are more commonly used than portrait orientation.
- It’s good to give options: 5-10 photos lets them choose which one they want to use and hopefully some diversity of images between reviews.
- 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.
- If there is no photo credit, they won’t be able to use it.
Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL)
CASL explains how your emails can be used as spam and the legalities around spam that you may encounter. 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 new 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!