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Headway or headlines for headstrong Headlong?

At the Olivier Awards a week ago, Rupert Goold was proudly telling me of his plans to abandon a formal press announcement for his Headlong company’s new season. Instead, they were going to let the world know via Twitter, Facebook and a youtube video.

“O brave new world that has such people in’t,” as Miranda says in a play that Goold once directed for the RSC in a production that relocated it to an Arctic wasteland. As Propero says in return, “Tis new to thee.” Headlong want to make headway in a new, interactive world of digital media to reach a global audience, but I’m wondering just where this will all lead — and where it will all end up. Is it part of an Arctic wasteland that the media is heading headlong for, too?

On the one hand, it could be seen (in the view of the company’s always-delightful PR Cliona Roberts), “an interesting experiment to test how quickly social media reaches people and to launch a season with flair in the digital age, responding to the expanding mobile/technology (in a global market) with this ambitious mini-film.”

On the other, it could also possibly be the beginning of the end of PR as we know it. If the PR machinery excludes journalists in the game and goes straight to whom (they think) are the audience, they’ll preach only to the already converted (i.e interested enough in their work enough to follow them on Twitter and Facebook), and lose the wider audience that journalism reaches.

And once journalists are excluded, we’re simply not going to be interested in following where others have already led, so the story is dead to us. But in the long run, too, it all contributes to the death of conventional journalism. If we’re not needed, we won’t be here anymore — and once we’re not, there won’t be any need for PRs either to serve us, either.

Rupert Goold called me himself on Friday morning to explain that they weren’t trying to undermine the press as such, but just find a new way of putting a teaser of their work on public display — it was too early for a formal press release, he said, since the partners theatres for all the shows had yet to be firmed up — and since he had directed the film himself, it was a way of ‘owning’ the way the company presented itself personally, as if he had designed and artworked the flyer himself.

It’s also, no doubt, good experience for the film he’s about to make, whose change of schedule has apparently meant that he has had to bow out of the RSC/Wooster Group co-production of Troilus and Cressida this summer that he was going to co-direct with the Wooster’s Elizabeth LeCompte; instead, his place will be taken by Mark Ravenhill.

But also it was an attempt to help an audience ‘find’ the company for themselves, unprompted by the press. In a story in yesterday’s Observer, Goold was quoted saying, “What people in a social media age want is not to be told about something but to discover it. My parents will get a brochure from the National Theatre and book for [something] … But there’s been such a development of incessant marketing and advertising that people have become more sceptical towards that.”

As different departments juggle trying to drive different media and messages, theatre marketing departments seem to be regularly at odds with their own PR operations, constantly undermining them by jumping the gun on them. The Menier Chocolate Factory, for instance, routinely sends out mailshots to its e-mail circulation list announcing new productions ahead of a press release being sent out.

The Menier’s David Babani told me on Friday that they want its most loyal patrons to know the moment tickets go on sale, and have to send out the e-mail before the servers get clogged with people trying to book once the official announcement is released; so the marketing release is issued ahead of the press release on purpose, but chickens and eggs come to mind. The same thing happened for this year’s Chichester Festival season, where a season e-brochure went to members before a press release was issued.

Headlong’s film approach is all good and well — but it could also be a case of style over content. The film may be a fun way to announce their season. But they still need a press release with the simple facts. And it needs to go out before, or at the very least at the same time, as the film does.

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It's often irritating when the first communication's a standalone press release because some journalists edit and paraphrase the contents or make comments without reporting the full details, which the public can't access. That's another reason why supporters, friends and members get annoyed when they encounter partial or skewed press reports before they've been sent the original announcement or before it's available on the official website.

With Headlong's youtube season teaser, the public will only suffer if journalists decline to properly cover the promised, detailed press release, as you say you're tempted to do. Your comments illustrates the need for companies to fully explore using a variety of media to communicate dircctly with the public.

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