Twespians Fringe, Theatre PR and Digital Media

At last Monday night’s Twespians Fringe theatre PR session there was a lot of use, albeit slightly tongue in cheek, of the phrase ‘brave new frontier’. As clichéd as these words may sound – and as roundly laughed at as they may have been by the audience – there is a very true and pertinent message lurking somewhere behind them.

The internet is hardly a newfangled creation, but theatre press and marketing are still in the throes of profound and unsettling change brought about as a consequence of the digital revolution, to employ another clichéd phrase. It has now become something of a truism that the internet has changed everything and we do therefore find ourselves at a frontier where we have to decide our next move. Hence the question that prompted Monday’s discussion: is theatre PR doing all that it can?

For any readers who are unfamiliar with Twespians, the clue is in the name. These events bring together groups of Twitter users who either work in or have an interest in the theatre industry, giving us the opportunity to get to know each other away from the net and over a few drinks. Twespians’ little sister, Twespians Fringe, offers more focused events where, as well as gathering a few contacts, having a good natter and working on the next day’s hangover, theatre professionals have the chance to discuss and think about issues within the industry.

So what is theatre PR currently doing and how can it improve? Where does theatre PR go next as digital media continues to expand? To discuss such issues, host Andrew Girvan of Whatsonstage.com directed questions at a panel consisting of Amber Massie-Blomfield, PR director at Mobius Industries; Honour Bayes, theatre critic, editor and blogger; Andrzej Lukowski, Fringe Theatre editor at Time Out; and Alexander Fleming, Senior Marketing Manager at the Lyric Hammersmith.

What is theatre PR today?

A good place to start is a consideration of what exactly the role of theatre PR is these days, a topic that inevitably came up in the panel’s discussion. There was mention of ‘community building’, a somewhat fluffy sounding notion but one that should in fact be integral to how theatre PR works. Amber pointed out that ideally PR should be about managing relationships – relationships between press and artists, between theatres and audiences, between all these different parties – but clearly the way in which these relationships are managed is constantly changing.

No doubt many will see the job of a PR company or press and marketing department as drumming up ticket sales and luring in the country’s top arts journalists, but it can and should be so much more. When we are no longer limited by print, the promotion and communications surrounding a production can take a creative approach through the inventive use of other media such as video (a medium that was given extensive discussion, coming to the conclusion that this is the best video posted by the Lyric Hammersmith).

Perhaps this additional media cannot be directly traced to a boost in ticket sales, but it can give a richer sense of what a production or company is about, make audiences feel involved in the work of the artists and enhance the wider image of both that theatre/company/show and the arts world as a whole, something that is essential in this bleak atmosphere of cuts. Another issue raised during the course of the evening was the question of what role theatre PR plays in representing the arts and theatre more widely, a role that all too often gets overlooked. PR is undoubtedly a central cog in the great theatre machine, linking together so many other individuals within the arts, and as such is ideally placed to play its part in positively representing the arts community.

Breaking down divides

We’re all a bit prejudiced; this, in a nutshell, was one of the things we learnt from last week’s Twespians. A rather heated debate was sparked off around the deep rift that seems to exist between London theatre and ‘regional’ theatre – I use quote marks around regional because it was suggested, arguably with a great measure of truth, that this is a detrimental term that only serves to further separate theatre outside London from that which is produced in the capital. This point may have been wrangled over for a tad too long, but there is certainly a strong argument that theatre is theatre, full-stop. A show’s quality should be of more importance than where it was produced.

The more interesting divide, however (at least from my perspective), is that between traditional print media and the emergence and proliferation of digital media. It will come as no shock that in the eyes of many newspaper coverage is still king – or, as Honour put it, ‘print is God’ – but what we now need to think about is how to shift this perspective, both from a PR point of view and from the perspective of arts journalists and bloggers like myself.

One difficulty encountered by even the most web-savvy PRs is the hurdle of convincing their bosses, who understand print media and want to see in clear numbers how dealing with a certain publication can benefit them. It is all very well telling press officers that they must get more websites and bloggers into their productions, but is also the responsibility of these web writers to de-mystify their sites and make it clear how their readership will be an asset to the theatre. This is a point that could have been pushed further in discussion, exploring just how PRs and journalists/bloggers might move forward and forge a collaborative relationship to overcome such issues.

As an individual who writes for the web and has almost unbounded enthusiasm for the possibilities of digital media, I would love to see a shift towards a world where online arts journalism can find a place for itself alongside more traditional media. There is no question in my mind, at least not yet, of the web replacing the great tradition of print journalism, but there is no reason why the two cannot happily co-exist. As emphasised by Andrzej, print and web audiences are two very different beasts and the two mediums might cater for different needs. What is needed, however, is a joint effort to prove that digital media is just as valid as its older print-based cousin.

Theatres are all a Twitter

No debate about theatre PR in a room full of Twitter users would be complete without a rehash of the old arguments about how theatres use social media. Despite the fact that this has been extensively batted about across the blogosphere (including a blog post from yours truly), it is an issue that remains fresh. Many theatres are still not using this (in my humble opinion) ruddy wonderful medium to its best and it continues to be a lost opportunity to connect with audiences.

An old debate was enlivened with some new input, including an interesting defence of retweeting – a common target of criticism – given by the Richmond Theatre’s Charlotte Twining, who saw this as a way of rewarding and interacting with the individual who has tweeted about the show, a perspective that I had admittedly not considered. It is vital for theatres to acknowledge their followers, but might a reply not be a more personal (and less potentially irritating) way to do this? Editor and freelance writer Eleanor Turney also highlighted Twitter’s virtues as a way of responding to criticism as much as to praise and opening up a true dialogue. Conversation is a key word in describing how theatres and PRs should be engaging with audiences.

The consensus once again, however, was that Twitter is a fantastic opportunity to give organisations a human face and an opportunity that needs to be taken seriously by theatres. As pointed out in Monday’s discussions, with the aid of tools like Tweet Deck and a little training it is not a mammoth task to manage social media, it just needs an initial investment of time and people. Twitter users want a conversation and that’s what theatres need to give them, not an endless stream of marketing. Honour suggested that what we need is the Betfair Poker of theatre; tweeting that is creative, witty and hilariously random. I’ll second that.

~

I could go on and I hope that these debates will continue. Although this is a good place to start the discussion, it is not just theatre PRs who should be asked whether they are doing enough. It is the responsibility of theatres, artists, journalists, bloggers – anyone who is involved with and loves theatre – to do all that they can to propel the industry into this ‘new frontier’. If theatre and the way we understand it is to develop, it must be a joint effort. Or in other words, to end on the same hackneyed note in which this blog entry began, we really are all in this together.

Hear the full discussion here. To find out more about Twespians, visit the website.

Have any views on theatres and Twitter? Help share knowledge about how Twitter users engage with theatres by filling out this survey, created by Amber Massie-Blomfield of Mobius PR.

Carry on the discussion by leaving a comment below.

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