Yes, the title of this article is click-bait. It’s designed to draw you in with a quirky quote, and it sounds like it’s going to reveal secrets or unknown truths, making you feel like you’ll understand better than everyone else or be more “in the know” after having read it. It also lets me write this first paragraph and appear particularly smart for knowing all of this, which you’ll probably either perceive as arrogant or brilliant. Well, certainly not the latter after I’ve explained it like this, which you probably find a little condescending – but hopefully, you’re starting to see what I’m doing here.
This how a publicist’s mind works. It’s about trying to make people think in a certain way, to understand how to tap into people’s thought processes and get them interested, excited and engaged – in my case, with theatre. At least, that’s how my mind works – and by stating it so categorically, part of me is trying to get a rise out of people who disagree – make them bristle, want to disagree and want to comment. You can see why people use the phrase “the dark arts” to describe it.
But in actuality it’s quite a simple job: you’re trying to get your client coverage in the press. Effectively, you’re trying to secure free advertising – and a lot of press outlets are interested in providing that service because it will interest their readers, and it’s the publicist’s job to contact those outlets and try and secure it by making their project appealing to the outlet's audience.
You could leave it there – at the most basic level, that’s all a publicist is doing. But then we get to “the dark arts” – how do you get press outlets to provide that service to you over someone else? It’s their choice what they promote – why should they pick you?
At this point, a lot of it is down to knowing how individual journalists and press people operate. Some like to be treated very professionally, others like a more personal touch. Some like to have exclusives - the chance to be the first to cover a certain story. Some are only interested in certain kinds of project. Some only cover in a certain geographical area. Some like the sociability of meeting up with other reviewers on a busy press night, others don't want to engage outside of the show itself. Some like pictures, others like text. Some can't stand publicists and want to talk to artists - or vice versa. Some want to be charmed and flirted with, others find that distasteful. Or one or a combination of hundreds of other little touches that make you appeal over another.
However, I do have a secret. There is a “dark art” I’ve discovered. A universal constant that everyone wants: respect. It's something we all crave, especially in theatre, and I believe it is something where journalists are often given the shortest shrift. Regardless of whether they're one of the few who get paid for their work or a blogger who works off their own back, theatremakers expect a lot from them - and then often get very huffy when the journalist doesn't say what they want them to. And then lash out - grumpy social media posts, emails decrying bloggers as hacks and paid-up critics as bitter. Or any one of the other things artists like to say when someone doesn't understand their art.
There's a fundamental disconnect between what theatremakers want from journalists and what journalists do - which is where the publicist comes in. And where giving them the respect they deserve for their work, regardless of star rating, is so important. Well, it’s important to me - but that's the nice thing about publicity: like so many other jobs, different people work in different ways. It's certainly one of the tenets I try and keep to, alongside keeping my prices low and offering publicity to fringe productions that couldn't usually afford it and not hiring assistants or the like to assure clients that when they hire me, they get me. But now we're erring into the realm of self-promotion - which, let's be under no illusions, this whole article is in aid of, but I don't like to trumpet too loudly.
Chris Hislop is a freelance theatre publicist. He has also worked as a theatre writer and critic, editor, development consultant and theatre director. As a freelance theatre publicist, he has over 10 years experience in arts journalism and PR, and specialises in Off West End/fringe theatre in London. He is the press manager for Theatre N16 and Sutton Theatres.
Chris is directing a new production of Howard Barker's Gertrude - The Cry at Theatre N16 in June.
Ticket link: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/event/123949