As someone still relatively new to Fringe reviewing, though not to the Fringe itself, I’ve never understood the power that PRs wield (or are presumed to wield). It seems to be common currency among performers that the only way to Fringe success is to cough up the cash to pay for one, and that if you don’t have the support of big PR, you’re on a hiding to nothing.
To me, as an unpaid editor managing an unpaid team of writers, that’s bizarre. That kind of PR set-up belongs to a bygone era of broadsheet reviewing and staff journalists. When there were limited outlets and obvious gatekeepers, you might have needed someone with an “in”, someone whose years of schmoozing the big publications could secure you a review, someone who could sell your story. It wasn’t good, but it was necessary. But hasn’t twenty plus years of the internet, the collapse of paid journalism and dwindling numbers of broadsheets at the Fringe flattened that power structure? Aren’t the days of all-powerful PR over, and a more nimble, nuanced approach taking its place, one that takes account of the plethora of different publications and the difficulties they face, not least the cart-before-horse scenario that there’s no money in journalism, yet seemingly heaps in PR? Maybe if your PR is well in with one of those big publications, it is still like the old days. I don’t know. I don’t hang around those bars or mix in those circles. But from the cheap seats, where we sit, things look very different.
Big PR doesn’t really work round here. We have a Fringe brochure and we know how to use it. Our review list mainly writes itself – it’s homegrown Scottish shows, shows that will be obvious talking points, shows which have built word-of-mouth at Brighton and Buxton or the Australian Fringes, shows which fit our writers’ specialisms. We balance it across venues and for performers of different backgrounds. We also leave plenty of room for people we meet at Meet The Media. Mid-Fringe, we pick up word-of-mouth hits. By the end, I’m usually putting the call out for shows that have had no reviews from anywhere. The idea that we’re going to make room in all that just because someone has paid someone else to badger us is nonsense.
There are some good PRs. Ones who know who we are, what our editorial policies are, what shows we like to see. In our case, that’s mainly the Scottish PRs we work with year round. And they’re useful in doing things like: letting us know about first review dates; flagging shows we might have missed but would probably be interested in; being super-responsive to ticket requests so we can review on the fly; being there to have a drink and a Fringe gossip with (and only then subtly dropping in talk of their client). They’re good to work with. They’re a help to us, and to performers. Their rates are also usually cheaper.
And then there are some awful ones. Examples of bad practice this Fringe include: phoning individual reviewers (circumventing our editorial policy and those of other publications I know); texting reviewers to try and meet them at shows to pitch more shows (no serious reviewer wants a PR at their shoulder when watching something – think what that means for objectivity); texting reviewers who left a publication years ago; getting our names wrong; getting in a huff when we can’t fit shows in; responding to review requests with pushiness to review more… In some cases this is coming from PRs I have never met. Think about that when you’re buying a PR’s “book of contacts”.
Of course, this is all fairly easily dealt with from our side. When new reviewers ask what they do when PRs phone them, I tell them to treat them like PPI calls – unsolicited and unwanted. It’s just a nuisance and slows up the actual process of getting out and reviewing. But I feel sorry for the performers who’ve forked out for this in the expectation that it’s effective. In some cases their cash has simply bought them a place on a list with dozens of other performers and an instruction “please let me know if you can review any of these…” and then maybe a phone call from an intern when that doesn’t work. (You could literally do better yourself. My e-mail address is here.) Worse, in some cases, your PR is actively obstructing you from being reviewed. If I request a ticket from a press office and they say, “Sorry, I have to check with the PR first”, I cancel on the spot. I’m having to organise a schedule at short notice, due to volume of work. I don’t have time for a vetting procedure. One PR cost two of their acts a review that way this year.
The Fringe economy is messed up in lots of ways and the PR system is just one. At times it seems there’s nothing more to it than hard-up performers paying nicely-remunerated PRs to pester hard-up reviewers. Why are we not cutting out the middlewomen (and occasional man) and connecting directly? After all, the bottom has fallen out of journalism, the Fringe notoriously impoverishes performers. Why are we the ones propping up the arts PR industry? “I can’t afford PR,” is the cry I hear all the time from performers. “Is it still OK?” Too right it is. We’re in the same boat here.
If I tell you that, in some cases, what one act pays one of these PRs is double our site’s income for the entire year, you might get some sense of how messed up this system is. You might also appreciate why an unknown PR begging for a review for an unknown act is likely to fall on deaf ears. Why should we care their client hasn’t had a review? That’s not our problem. We’re not paid for this; they are. Many performers haven’t had reviews, and there’s some out there who are clearly in greater need of institutional support from us – co-operative efforts like the Working Class Fringe brochure, for instance. Big PR has access to all the big acts, sure. But the lure of being able to see established big names for free is not sufficient when we’d get more satisfaction from finding undiscovered talent who might actually appreciate our time and effort.
I’m not here to say never buy PR. If you really hate selling yourself, or you don’t have the time, or you don’t know who all the publications are, then by all means, buy in support. But do it like you would a flyerer, or a tech. Check they know and understand your show, check they know their patch, check they’re not overstretching themselves. Canvass publications to ask which PRs do things right. There’s no big mystery to it. You wouldn’t hire a flyerer who was flyering thirty different shows at the same time, or who was winding people up with their flyering technique, or who couldn’t tell someone what your show was about. Why are you doing that with your PR?
Be assured too that you’re not losing out by doing your own PR. (At least not with us; I can’t speak for other publications.) At best, buying in PR from someone we know and trust might give you 5-10% more chance of getting a review, but in some cases it’s downright counterproductive. To give you an idea of what you’re not up against: I reviewed twelve shows in the last weekend of the Fringe. Two were from the aforementioned Working Class Fringe brochure, two were random punts (i.e. the next available shows at the next nearest venues), six were from a shout-out on Twitter I did for any shows that were entirely unreviewed and only two were via PRs (and they were Scottish ones plugging Scottish shows, which it’s part of our remit to cover). That’s the kind of situation you’re looking at. You’re at no real disadvantage.
The Fringe only works as a “fringe” when the ecosystem supports everyone who wants to participate, at a level that’s sustainable for them. And as we all know, that ecosystem is creaking. Fortunately, someone always comes along to disrupt things when things have stagnated or collapse is imminent. On the performers side, PBH’s free model came along. On the reviewing side, websites and blogs began to fill the gaps print publications were leaving. But who is shaking up Fringe PR? When you can literally take my e-mail address from our site and in a two paragraph e-mail tell me all I need to know, and get direct access, why is anyone paying four figures for someone to do it much worse?
At The Wee Review, we’re not planning to go down the route of charging for reviews or guaranteeing a review if you buy an ad (although I can very well understand why some publications do that – bills need to be paid and livings need to be made). But when you think about it, that’s what the Fringe presumes is happening anyway – you buy PR, you’re buying yourself a certain amount of coverage. The only difference is transparency. All I can say is that, as far as we’re concerned, that isn’t the case. There’s a lot of Emperor’s New Clothes to Fringe PR, and until someone stands up and says so, we’re all worse off for it.