Feature: Regional Arts PR – A National Obsession?

Imagine you have just opened your ‘Arts PR’ text book and you are faced with the following scenario…

You are a national (and international) touring company. Your latest production has been touring for a while but has had a couple of weeks break. The spring section of your tour kicks off its first of six venues in February.

A week before opening night, the first venue’s press officer contacts regional critics to tell them that you, the touring company, have cancelled all review tickets, stating that reviews are now barred until the London run four weeks later.

Now, though it always seems to surprise press and PR agents, critics do talk to each other in intervals and the subject of ‘what’s next’ often crops up. What unravels over one set of interval drinks is a tale of one publication being allowed in to review said show in the regional venue.

The venue press officer advises that the exception to the embargo had been specifically requested by the tour company.

You – the company – deny any knowledge, as does your external PR agent. Frantic email and phone conversations follow between venue, company and PR and the embargo is uniformly imposed on all parties and a ‘misunderstanding’ blamed for the embargo exception. Damage is already done however, with a feeling of mistrust prevalent and, for one organisation, a frantic rescheduling of diaries.

Along with your apology comes the line ‘we hope you are able to review the show in London’. Diaries checked and yes the London press night is free for the impacted media.

When it comes to arranging tickets, though, the mood seems to change as your external PR company states that review tickets for the London date are now limited to national media organisations only.

An isolated tale of poor communication used in a text book as an example of how not to handle PR? Sadly not.

The names may have been omitted from the story to preserve working relationships in the future but this is an actual incident that happened this year, one of a growing number of anecdotes shared over those interval drinks of regional media being side-lined by PR companies only interested in the national print media.

We’re not talking major West End musicals here, or plays doing a limited run prior to London, these are national tours of productions that, for the majority of time, never hit the West End; the closest they get is a week in Richmond or Bromley.

So what is causing the issues? Do PR agencies need to improve their knowledge of media outside of London? Certainly there’s an element of London centric knowledge at play but, as touring product, surely there needs to be some liaison with the venue’s own press office?

It’s a relationship that often doesn’t seem to be working to serve either the venue or the touring product. Confusion over where the boundaries between national and regional lie are all too common and all too often it is regional media that falls through the cracks.

It seems it’s a frustration shared by some venue press officers, who find their local knowledge and contacts are being ignored with the national PR agents using their own, sometimes wildly inaccurate and outdated, contact lists. While local press officers understand their specific market and the local media, many of the PR agencies seem to rely more on national media. Sadly it’s becoming a more frequent occurrence on contacting the PR to be told ‘we only deal with national media’.

While of course any national coverage of regional theatre is to be welcomed, do PR agencies risk antagonising those loyal media outlets who cover a regional venue week in, week out in favour of the big name?

What message does that send regional arts correspondents? Are they likely to give coverage to an event when the PR agency is so dismissive towards them? How likely are they to want to cover the rest of the venues programme one the big name show has moved onto its next date? Is gaining a couple of hundred words in a national publication once a year worth the risk of losing that weekly coverage from local media outlets?

Of course the problem isn’t purely down to external PR companies, even venue-based press and marketing teams don’t always get it right. It’s been interesting over the last few weeks to ask a number of established venue press officers if they knew what media organisations had the highest penetration in their areas.

Out of six venues questioned only three could answer. Of the rest two said they hadn’t carried out any research in a couple of years and the third said they relied on the media themselves to tell them circulation figures.

So while we need to continue the campaign to increase coverage of theatre outside London in the national media we also need to get venues and, more importantly, PR agencies up to speed on regional media.

It’s a fast moving and ever evolving sector but fail to adapt and you could find that when those coveted national critics fail to journey out to your venue, you could find your local media have already been alienated to your brand and moved on to a more receptive organisation.

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