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Fringe Reflections: The Power of PR?


Opinion

You need PR behind you to succeed at the Fringe – or do you?

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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.

 

/ @peaky76


Robert is the Managing Editor of The Wee Review and has been writing for the site since early 2014. Previously, he was manager of the Yorkshire arts website, digyorkshire. He pays bills by working for a palliative care charity and lives in Edinburgh.

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One Response to Fringe Reflections: The Power of PR?

  1. On the editorial side, likewise I get lots of requests from PR’s and those going alone. I tend to find the comedy industry to be quite self-destructive or not overly forward thinking. Of course everyone wants to be reviewed by a newspaper that people have heard of, but they put less people on the ground to cover comedy at the Fringe or do any real coverage outside the Fringe unless it’s at the Soho Theatre. Many of these people are not going out to investigate acts they’ve yet to have seen. Which is what I’d really consider to be fundamental in journalism, reporting to the public what they don’t know or should know. And further still, if they maybe did go see a complete unknown, they won’t publish it because they only report on those with status or a rising sense of status. Also the turnaround time for some of the reviews by the papers are shocking. Scotsman can be three weeks and not even upload them to the site.

    There’s this gap for Short Com, and for many others I imagine, in terms of most people wanting me to review them but not understanding that now I really need some sort of financial aid to properly dedicate the time to it, or pay someone to do so. I’m not a marketing, social media or web editing expert, probably like many of us. I do like to think that I know what is funny and that most people respect that, and I look for that in my team so I don’t pick anyone to review. If I had a budget, probably likewise for yourselves, I can pay people I trust for their time to cover more. Most performers who come up won’t batter an eye lid to pay someone to flyer for them, get a ridiculous sized poster for someone to draw a cock on and pay someone from 1k-3k for PR, but rarely would consider to help a small team of reviewers that they’re all desperate for. And when Edinburgh is done, I will not hear from anyone bar Stuart Goldsmith and Avalon about what they are up to outside of the Fringe and looking for some coverage. A good review will not necessarily result in increased audience numbers, but I do know reviews from Short Com have helped raise some performers market value, or certain criticisms have helped performers learn what they need to do to improve. I do think venues and promoters really need to do more to support those that are plugging the gaps, especially the Edinburgh Fringe. They’re the ones making money by the bucket loads. There are some I’d probably would love to blacklist but it’s unfair for many performers who are not involved in the politics and probably shouldn’t suffer because of it.

    As for some PR’s. I do let their clients know if I think their PR is doing a good job for them or not. Likewise, I schedule on the fly and sometimes need a quick response. Though again there’s a slight lack of respect from the venues, as they have a list of people they process without a PR’s confirmation. I also know some PRs will take credit for a reviewer seeing an act when they had no influence or knowledge that they were in.

    As a PR, I refuse to charge the stupid amount others do. One of my acts highlighted and compared the job I was doing against another PR charging 2-3k for an act, earning around 30k plus from the Fringe. I think all these PR’s don’t get involved until April and just say the job is done come September. What is maddening is that all these PRs know there is less and less press every year, but their fees stay the same. They could help by supporting the smaller publications but they’re just not interested. I also vet my acts to be sure they’re good comics and nice people. It’s hard to say how much market appeal and value I add to a lot of them before and after. But I will also try to get my acts on paid gigs, or act as an agent to fill the gaps so my clients get some value out of me and look after them after the Fringe to try get any more reviews. As a PR, I try to know everyone I’m contacting by name, put forward who I think they would like to see. I might not respect everyone’s opinions but I respect them as people and the work they do. Furthermore, you never know who these people might be in the future.

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