Our journey with Fol Espoir started with a slightly awkward conversation with a fairly sceptical sounding John Walton. John had got in touch through a mutual friend who had recommended us, but I didn’t know this at the time, and thought it was an off spec enquiry.
What I realised as I was speaking to him, and one of the things I’ve enjoyed about working with Fol Espoir since, is that whilst ‘PR’ is a dark art for so many of the people I work with – something they know needs to happen, but have no desire to get involved in – for John and Freddie it didn’t fall into the ‘scary’ category, but instead it was another part of the adventure, approached with just as much openness, creativity, honesty and intelligence as they approached the show.
I think John sounded sceptical that day because he was still weighing up his decision, trying to sound tough, and decide whether we were the best he’d spoken to.
But I also think that throughout the project there has been a real striving for excellence in John that has made me feel, well, not uneasy, but just like I had to prove myself, to live up to his expectations.
And that’s actually a really interesting point about client relationships. I’ve always assumed that the ideal is that you treat each other like friends – you have a giggle on the phone, you know about each other’s house sale / new car / favourite TV show – but working with Fol Espoir has really reminded me that some of the most productive relationships are not even.
What I felt, and what John made me feel, was a responsibility to do a good job. Not because he was being horrible or demanding, but because when you’re working with people who are really good at what they do – and really invested in what they do – you have an obligation not to let them down.
And there is a real duty of care with clients like Fol Espoir too. Their money, like many of our clients, comes from arts council funding – tax payers’ hard earned money that our government still, just about, believes is best spent in making theatre and then in persuading people to come and see it.
So all in all that’s a lot of pressure. It’s a question we always ask ourselves before accepting PR project work. Can we deliver on the clients’ expectations? If not, that’s a lot of heartache and a lot of blame to shoulder – particularly in a discipline where ultimately you’re never in control of the results. But that doesn’t matter – if you sign on the dotted line and say you’re going to make something happen and then you can’t, there’ll only be one person to blame in the client’s eyes.
But in this case I was happy to say that we could it. They had sensible expectations – the focus was on regional press rather than national, on bums on seats rather than glittering reviews, and the show had almost all of the ‘magic’ ingredients for great press coverage – a real life story about a well-known figure, not the story we all know, but something different – the young Winston Churchill, opening in Winston’s home town, a one-man show being performed by a young theatre company. And they had great production photographs already, from an Edinburgh run last year.
And we were right. Doing press for Winston on the Run has been easy. I don’t say that lightly, and I wouldn’t say it about anything else I’ve worked on this year. I did it with the help of one of our PR execs, Lisa, whose organisational skills worked a treat on a 30 date tour of one night shows. And it was easy because the strength of the story really captured journalists imaginations, and also because Freddie is such an eloquent interviewee. He made an excellent radio guest – and 10 BBC radio interviews later, he hadn’t missed a single beat, racing around to fit interviews into his day’s travel from one venue to the next, not just enthusing about the show, but engaging presenters in a debate.
I think it’s easy to sit in your office as a PR, setting people up with interviews, without really thinking about how much personal effort it takes to actually do them, and do them well. It was also easy because both John and Freddie were always there at the other end of an email, or a phone call, and because we were working together with one common goal.
We approached the task in a methodical way, identifying a list of target venues with John, and then prioritising key titles for each venue. We used the venues communications teams as a starting point – their local knowledge is always the key to projects like this – and then it was just a case of being thorough about contacting and following up with each contact, co-ordinating and recording interview requests, and being organised enough to put together a schedule that Freddie could keep up to, as well as fitting in around tech time and once the show was open, travel time.
As regional and national media become more and more stretched in terms of their journalists’ time and ability to travel, the tide turns more towards the need to provide ready-made content. So in many cases writers were asking for email question and answers rather than phone interviews, and The Guardian Professionals Network asked for an 800 word blog. Obviously, this changing landscape gives a great opportunity for those who have the time and skill to write, but it does change the balance of how much time on projects is spent writing, as opposed to pitching. In lots of ways that’s great – it gives the control back to us – as well as a sense of being a ‘maker’ rather than a middle man – but it does tend to be more time consuming. In this case though, Freddie and John were great – and were happy to give the time to write great content – and one of the results can be seen here:
People often ask ‘what works best’ in terms of the mix between print media, online and broadcast – but the only proper answer to that question is that what you really want is a bit of everything. I think here we got a nice balance between radio, traditional print and online – although perhaps it would have been nice to have seen more really good, engaged arts bloggers in the regions the show toured to – I’m sure they’re out there – but we just didn’t quite find the time to focus our energies in that direction, and I think it was agreed that the audience for this particular show were perhaps more interested in traditional than ‘new’ media.
I think this tour has been a learning process – both for us and for Fol Espoir, and there are certainly things that we could have done differently (like starting work two months earlier), but I think I can hold my head up and say that we lived up to John’s expectations. Just about.
– Jane works with arts, leisure and business tourism clients as an account manager for Bonner & Hindley Communications. She was press officer for the West Yorkshire Playhouse and is Press and PR Manager for Red Ladder Theatre.