May 19: A storm in a PR teacup

Mark ShentonInclude in homepage slide?, Thought of the day2 Comments

or is the china being smashed up and rebuilt now?

There’s a weekly Thursday night ritual, when Baz Bamigboye routinely tweets out advance notice of some of the stories he’ll be leading his arts and entertainment double page in the next day’s Daily Mail with. Baz, as I’ve written here previously, actually does the real journalistic legwork to get his stories; and last week was no exception.

He had the scoop that Megan Mullaly had departed from the production of Anything Goes coming to the Barbican in July, and was being replaced by the original Tony winning star of this revival’s 2011 Broadway premiere, the glorious Sutton Foster (who will be making her London debut).

Talk about trading up! Baz had a statement from Mullaly that explained, “My body has informed me (mainly while at tap class) that I need to have a few rods replaced before I can get back on stage”; and he reported that, luckily, “director Kathleen Marshall has found a life jacket in the form of Foster, 46, who was a sensation when she played Reno in the Broadway production she staged back in 2011. Both won Tony Awards (as did the show, for best musical revival).”

He also went on to say:

“A couple of years ago the pair discussed putting on a new version in the West End. But ocean currents were against them at that time, thanks to Foster’s other stage commitments, as well as the shooting schedule for her TV series Younger (about a 40-year-old divorcee passing herself off as a 26-year-old to land a job). /When Foster got a call from Marshall saying: ‘We’re sort of in a bind . . . would you be interested?’ she didn’t hesitate. ‘I’m like ‘Whaaaaat?!’ ‘ she joked. 

… She’s clearly over the moon about the unexpected job offer. ‘Honestly, I burst into tears at the thought of being on the stage again. It’s overwhelming. Our entire industry has been non-existent for the last year.’

She’s also ‘intrigued’ to see what it’ll be like, revisiting a role she redefined when she was 36, now that she’s ‘older and a little more tired’.

Foster said she’d doubled her exercise regimen during the pandemic. Which is good, because Marshall’s choreography is daunting.”

This is real reporting, not just rehashing a press release.

But last Thursday, instead of trailing his story for the next day, Baz simply tweeted:

As a loyal reader replied,

Another also said:

And yesterday, further casting on the production also duly came, not via a press release from the show’s appointed press agents, but via the Facebook page of one of the show’s co-producers:

These sorts of elementary PR blunders, in a world where the job is ALL about communication, are unfathomable.

But sometimes they’re even deliberately orchestrated that way.

A few weeks ago, I saw that The Stage and WhatsOnStage both had stories revealing the opening dates for the arrival of Disney’s Frozen at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. I asked the show’s London press agent if she’d issued a release: “I didn’t, no – it was announced via social,” she replied.

It’s the sort of thing, though, that will ultimately lead to the redundancy of PR offices altogether. Why employ a separate PR specialist, if your social media and marketing departments can handle those sort of announcements?It might have once used to be that at least the PR would act as a point of contact for critics. But as critics dwindle in the scale of importance of a production’s media strategy, will they even bother with that going forward? Perhaps the theatre’s box office manager can simply handle the press requests under instruction from the producer as to who to approve.

Just last week I saw a press release that had quotes on a returning production entirely made up of social media reactions, not a critic amongst them. This trend was anticipated a long time ago when The Book of Mormon first opened in London and producers Scott Rudin and his London partner Sonia Friedman flooded the media with press ads comprised entirely of public tweets in advance of the press night. Whatever we thought of the show was going to be (almost) entirely irrelevant.

So even the basic function of being a point of contact between press and a production may be rendered unnecessary in the new world where marketing is far more important than what a fractured, diminished press offer.

At the start of the year came the ominous news that London’s biggest theatre publicity firm, Corner Shop PR (logo above), was disbanding due to the impact of COVID, after 13 year in business; as The Stage reported at the time, “In March 2020 the agency had 23 people working in its London office, which was reduced to 12 by the end of the year.”

As Lyn Gardner wrote in a column for The Stage in January that followed this news,

“I am sad, not just because I’ve forged good relationships with so many at the company over the years, and have seen so many great shows the company has PR-ed, but also because – though the Corner Shop could certainly put on the West End glitz and boasted Sonia Friedman among its clients – it always felt to me that its founders were driven by a genuine passion for theatre and its possibilities.

Over the past 13 years, many of my first glimpses of new companies have come via the Corner Shop. Yes, it represented some of the biggest players, but there was always room for the quirky, the innovative and sometimes the just plain crazy. I know there was often a generosity and loyalty in how the company went about this and it resulted in enduring long-term relationships that arose from this approach.”

Many of its former staffers have, of course, since launched new independent PR ventures, either banding together (some have reformed as Bread and Butter PR, another pair have become About Grace PR, while one more has joined an existing agency called Storyhouse PR) or working solo.

It’s going to make the PR world of theatre less centralised, with many of the biggest clients represented by either Cornershop or Premier Communications as in the past, but by a possibly more equitable distribution of work amongst smaller offices, like Kate Morley PR, Emma Holland PR (that last week celebrated its 10th anniversary in business), Amanda Malpass PR, Jo Allan PR and Raw PR, or solo operators like the hard-working Kevin Wilson, Arabella Neville-Rolfe, Cliona Roberts and David Burns, and the newer partnerships on the block like Storyhouse, and now Bread and Butter and About Grace.

But as this not comprehensive list already demonstrates, there are more people working in PR these days than working as a full-time critics as it is. (And yes, I realise that PRs don’t just serve critics, but also news reporters, feature writers and television and radio media).

It’s an already daunting job for them to cover all the bases, and of course they’re the fall guy when things don’t go right, and are entirely forgotten about when they do. So it’s a peculiarly thankless role, too.

But as the industry morphs and changes, the PR functions they used to serve are being challenged as never before. As Gardner’s piece for The Stage concluded,

“The demise of the Corner Shop in London is just one indicator that theatre is in a period of unprecedented change. Maybe it also suggests that in many areas of theatre activity, the future lies in the small and bespoke.”

That’s certainly true of the direction I’m taking my career forward as an arts journalist and critic. I’m far happier now, writing for myself here, than I ever was writing under the control of editors who liked to impose their views (and sometimes change my copy to suit theirs) at will. You will at least know that every word I write here is as I’ve written it, instead of being edited to someone else’s agenda or preferences anymore.

2 Comments on “May 19: A storm in a PR teacup”

  1. Annie Caird

    Excellent, thought-provoking stuff here Mark. The pandemic really has accelerated the winds of change & upheavals in the theatre world. As when Disney bought into B’way in the early 80’s.

  2. Hugh

    As one of the ‘quirky, the innovative and sometimes the just plain crazy’, I can never praise and thank the Corner Shop team enough. They looked after one-off fund-raising productions with as much passion and dedication as their long runners. I wish them – and all freelance PR teams – all the every best as we return to normality. And critics? They are vital to guide those who have little spare cash to throw around. Find one you trust, and support them!

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