“Exclusives”, “Scoops” and Comms Failures in Theatre Publicity

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All too often, as we know from the way the government routinely by-passes parliament to make major announcements first via select “friendly” journalists it chooses to brief in advance, even journalism is hardly an objective tool, but a carefully manipulated source of outlets that can be counted on to do your PR bidding.

For many years theatre PR has functioned in much the same way, with big announcements given as exclusives to particular journalists or outlets. This has always been mildly irritating, especially to those of us — as I once did — who had to report theatre news as it was announced, when I was employed for a long time as London correspondent for playbill.com. When other outlets got a story ahead of me, Playbill would naturally ask why I didn’t have it, too. I would hastily have to chase the tail of the original outlet, and if all else failed, would have to report it second-hand, attributing the unverified news to the original publisher of it.

There’s been a tradition — going back at least over 35 years — for the Daily Mail’s brilliant and uniquely well-connected (and hard-working) showbusiness reporter Baz Bamigboye to steal a march on most everyone else with production and casting announcements in his Friday column in the paper for the theatre (and also films and television shows). I know this because he was already doing it in the second half of the 1980s when I held my first job at Dewynters, a West End advertising agency for whom I was responsible for editing the theatre programmes and souvenir brochures they published.

I’ll never forget when one account handler — now alas no longer with us — getting very irate when I mentioned that I knew a show she was responsible for representing for the agency was closing. She angrily replied, “DON’T say anything — the cast haven’t been told yet!” To which I replied, “But it was in the Mail today!!” This was of course long before the internet; now this news spreads even faster. And not just in theatre land, but globally.

Although Baz’s column runs in the paper on Friday (and is posted online at some point overnight), he routinely tweets some of his exclusive announcements ahead of that. On Thursday night, he duly tweeted news about a new musical in development for a West End premiere at the dog 2021/early 2022: a stage version of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife [above], with songs by Dave Stewart and Joss Stone.

Only, it appears, no one had told Niffenegger, who replied herself on Twitter:

The show’s London press agent Amanda Malpass — a terrific and thorough press agent of the old school, who had learnt her craft at the feet of the greatest London theatre publicist of my lifetime, Peter Thompson — hurriedly followed up her e-mail announcement of the show by informing me:

“The rights for the stage musical come from Warner Brothers Theatrical Ventures who own the stage rights of the book.”

Though this does put the record straight and keeps the powder dry of her producer client Colin Ingram, it does beg the question why no one had the diligence (or simple courtesy) to actually inform Niffenegger that her work was being thus adapted. No, she’s not writing the adaptation herself, and presumably she had signed away the theatrical rights in the first place, but it’s not like she’s exactly hard to find: she has an active twitter presence, as this demonstrated.

The Stage managed to contact her, and she told them on Friday:

“I was surprised to see news of a musical on Twitter, as I hadn’t heard about it. The rights are owned by Warner, so the people making the musical must have received permission from them. It’s a peculiar situation.”

You don’t say! And it would have been so easily solved with a little bit of communication.

Sometimes its simply staggering how such communication failures occur in a world of hyper-connectivity. And the old system of holding big press conferences, with embargoed releases sometimes released ahead of them, is simply falling apart in the wake of this.

Again, I’ll never forget being summonsed to the National Theatre a few years ago for a 9am press conference at which Rufus Norris was going to announce a slate of new productions. Only before we got there, the Mail had already splashed an exclusive revelation of the biggest announcement we would be gathering to hear: that Breaking Bad star actor Bryan Cranston would be coming to the National to star in a new stage version of the film Network, adapted by Lee Hall [pictured above]. And it wasn’t as if the Mail just had the headline: they also had a detailed interview with Norris about getting the project there.

As Baz Bamigboye reported,

‘It has taken a little while because Bryan will have to relocate here,’ Norris noted.
The NT chief joked that the wooing started on stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York 18 months ago, when Cranston presented the National with the best play Tony for The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. ‘Several thousand people didn’t hear the muffled “Are you available?” offer from centre stage.’
Cranston read the script early on, but had a lot of commitments, including the movie Trumbo (which won him an Oscar nomination), and a run on Broadway in the play All The Way, for which he won a Tony.
‘It has been an on-off chase, trying to make it work with all his numerous commitments,’ Norris told me yesterday. ‘We are delighted to have someone of his craft coming over.’

After the press event ended, I remember that I was not the only journalist present who was seriously affronted by the fact that we’d been brought to the South Bank at such an early hour to hear something we could have simply stayed at home and read online. Several of us confronted the theatre’s executive director Lisa Berger afterwards to protest.

But it was difficult, we were told. The theatre was working with commercial partners — they were actually cited in the story as Patrick Myles, David Luff, Ros Povey and Lee Menzies, some of whom were actually at the NT’s press event, too — and they had to work with them, as well as the Mail, to get the news out. It’s an important outlet. And you take your PR opportunities where you find them.

But just as it is massively disrespectful to the author of a best-selling book to find out by a public tweet that her book is being adapted for the stage, its is also disrespectful to other journalists to summons them to a press conference to find that they’ve been scooped on the biggest announcement to be made already. And West End companies who regularly seem to find out that their shows are closing via stories announced on Twitter are a demonstration of the same fundamental disrespect and communication failure.

The first people to find out such vital news about their immediate future should be the actors and crew, not twitter.