What PR Can Do for Your Show with Chloe Nelkin

What PR Can Do for Your Show with Chloé Nelkin

By Christina Carè

I think it’s important that companies know what they want from [The Fringe]. So, is it press? Is it industry? Is it a testing ground? For me, yes, it’s competitive and it’s huge, but it’s still [a] place where companies can be born and can develop. And that’s fantastic.
Chloé Nelkin

Spotlight spoke with PR guru Chloé Nelkin, whose consultancy helps communicate the best in the arts to the press. Chloé talks to us about the value of good PR, what differentiates the Fringe press from other kinds, and how to set some good goals for your PR. 

How did you get started?

I was originally an art historian but I had always loved the theatre and had been taken to watch shows by my parents when I was very little. It was a huge passion, but not something I was directly involved in. I always knew I wanted to be in the arts but wasn’t exactly sure [how]. When I originally set up CNC we just focused on visual arts. There was something that felt like it was missing. A year or so after I started the company, we split into doing all forms of arts - so that’s now visual arts and heritage, but also performing arts. Theatre is  a large part of what we do, but we also work across circus and opera. 

Does your approach to PR vary medium by medium? What makes for good PR in each category, do you think?

It sounds very cliched, but I think good PR comes down to how much you love what you’re PRing. One of the crucial things is that everyone on my team comes from some form of academic background or background linked to the arts. 

Everybody in the company really wants the projects to do well, wants to understand the client - we want to read scripts and go into rehearsals. I think that’s what makes good PR. If it just becomes a sales exercise and you don’t care about the product that you’re selling, then you can’t cut through all the competition out there - particularly at Edinburgh. 

If someone doesn’t really know what role PR plays, what do you see as the difference between PR and marketing more generally?

I think the fundamental difference [is] that marketing tends to be services that you are paying for, so taking adverts, creating leaflets, whereas PR, you’re paying the PR firm but the PR firm isn’t paying anybody for that service. Fundamentally you’re trusting a PR to be able to communicate about your project with enough passion and know-how that a journalist is going to be willing to write about it. So if you don’t have that really in-depth understanding - not just of the project, but the people behind it - then that can be really hard. If you’re just reading the blurbs given at the beginning of the project that might be 100 words, you’re not going to really do an in-depth enough pitch to get someone’s attention. 

Is standing out amongst the competition the main challenge of bringing a show to the Fringe? Or are there other challenges as well?

I think the main one is 100% the level of competition at the Fringe. One of the things that is both amazing and awful about the Fringe is how many shows there are up here. On one hand that’s fantastic and it’s the biggest festival in the world, the buzz is incredible. But, in another sense, because of the quantity of shows up here, the competition amongst the artists for space and for tickets becomes really, really intense. One of the other biggest challenges is understanding why you’re putting on the work. Are you putting on a show in Edinburgh for press? Or are you putting it on to get industry professionals in for a future life? 

If somebody is bringing a show up here because that sounds fun, I'm not sure it’s the right landscape to do that. I think one of the other big challenges from a press point of view is really understanding what your show is… really knowing why you’ve written it. In my opinion, just having a show that sounds interesting isn’t enough in this crowded marketplace. 

Also, one of the crucial things that we have happen every year is that when somebody hires a PR, they have to remember to tell a PR when they’ve changed their show. We’ll read a script and it sounds great and we’ll think we know what we’re talking about. Then we’ll get into a preview… and find that isn’t the show we’ve been talking about at all. Those few months before the Fringe, the pieces are developing so much and it’s really important to stay in touch with the PR and let them know. 

How do you like to start working with new clients? What is your relationship like with the production?

I think it depends on the client really. Often somebody will get in touch and they’ll send us the script to read. Sometimes they’ll just be able to send us extracts, or if it’s a company we’ve worked with before, we know them and we know we love their work. So that initial starting process can be quite different. 

Then we’d try to meet with the company, just hear them talk about the show, as you can have many interpretations of what somebody is trying to say. Just getting somebody to talk at you about their work can be so beneficial. That way we know we are using the right language, that we are coming at it from an angle that they feel comfortable with, and we really just ask them to stay in touch with us. 

[Sometimes] we’re asked for feedback on the script, which is really nice, because we’re much more of a part of the journey. We encourage people to treat us as an extension of their creative team.The ‘worst’ thing that’s going to happen is we have too much information about a show that we can’t use. We’re never going to be in a position where it isn’t going to be useful in one way or another. 

For shows that want future life beyond the Fringe, that’s when PR can really help, because having those quotes - whether it’s from reviews or features - to send to the venues they want to talk to or the producers they want to work with in the future, helps lend a bit more credibility. It’s about looking at those long-term goals.
Chloé Nelkin

I wonder then, in terms of the Fringe more specifically, what’s the value of an external PR? Rather than trying to do it yourself?

If you’re trying to do it yourself, there’s just so much to do already for your show… I think doing PR yourself can often be the thing that tips people over the edge. Remembering to call people and when to chase people and book in all the tickets - it’s a simple process in a way, but all things that take an awful amount of time. 

The other thing with good PR firms is that they hold the relationships with journalists. Although we’re based in London we’re up and down from Edinburgh all year, we’re regularly chatting to all the Scottish-based journalists, the people we know really well and we talk to on a weekly basis. I think from a journalist’s point of view, if they’ve got 200 emails in their inbox and they spot a name they know, that’s probably an easier conversation for them to have. Working with PR can often help cut through that huge level of competition up here. 

What about reviews - what’s the value of being reviewed, and how do you advise productions manage this process? 

We work with companies where - if they have a producer - the artist might choose not to read their reviews. I think that can be a really valuable thing during Edinburgh, because it’s such an intense environment. Reviews can be so varied, that morale can drop really quickly when you’re exhausted and doing a show every day. If you read those bad reviews, I think that can be really tough for the company. We’re quite encouraging of people who make the decision not to read their press during the Fringe.

There are some publications that don’t ‘star’ their reviews up here anymore, and I don't think that’s a bad thing. I think that sometimes star ratings can be quite harsh and don’t necessarily reflect the content of what is written in the review. Fundamentally, reviews are important, and one of the great things about Edinburgh that I hope people are embracing more and more is the fact that there is a diversity of reviewers, from the national newspapers right through to smaller blogs. And that it is a really important birthplace for new writers - it’s where a lot of new reviewers or journalists come to cut their teeth. 

Definitely, criticism is such an important part of the Fringe - I was just chatting to Francesca Moody about this very point and how important critique is to a show. I wanted to ask then about what happens after the Fringe - do you encourage people to stay in touch? Or to set new targets for their work, with criticism in mind?

It is always lovely when we maintain that relationship and carry on with the journey, so for example we have worked with Francesca for years and looked after Fleabag for her. That’s obviously had the most phenomenal journey. We stay with a lot of shows on that post-Fringe journey, and that’s really special. Especially for those who have [had] that success story. It’s really fantastic to watch that company blossom. 

After the Fringe we do have conversations with companies about their marketing copy and we’ll look back through reviews, maybe re-write the press release, looking at how people have interpreted it, what critics are taking from the show - maybe people are pulling out a theme that we thought was less important but actually is something that’s really starting conversations. We certainly look back through all the responses, both audiences and press, and think about whether we should reframe our conversation slightly. 

As you were saying, criticism is really important - not just for getting those star ratings on posters but also for seeing what people relate to and what they get from a show. 

So do you think the Fringe is still worth doing, overall? Despite the expense?

I still think it is valuable - there’s no getting away from the cost in terms of accommodation and everything. But I also don't think it’s ever cheap to stage a show. There’s this constant argument about the Fringe getting more expensive, but it’s not that anywhere else is getting cheaper, and I think that’s easy to forget. Staging the show in London - you have to have a huge marketing budget behind the show to cut through the London scene when you’re up against West End theatre. 

As I said, I think it’s just important that companies know what they want from it. So is it press? Is it industry? Is it a testing ground? For me, yes, it’s competitive and it’s huge, but it’s still [a] place where companies can be born and can develop. And that’s fantastic. 

We’ve worked with companies here formed from people who’ve just come out of drama school, who’ve staged their first  show and we’re still working with them 5 years later as the company has grown and developed. That’s so exciting to join somebody on that journey as they enter the industry. I think that’s what a successful Fringe can do. 

What do you think successful PR looks like?

That’s an impossible question! There’s no such thing really, it’s something that’s always hard to answer because the time old problem with PR is that you could put 6 months into a project and get nothing or you could put 6 months into a project and get more press than you know what to do with. So I think it’s really hard to quantify what successful PR is. 

The other thing is that PR doesn’t necessarily equate to ticket sales, so you might [get] phenomenal coverage and it doesn’t necessarily sell tickets to the show. A profile of the show [might generate] a ticket sale two weeks later, but it doesn’t always have that immediacy. People need to remember that PR is something that is fundamentally all about profiling. 

I think it is a really important thing and obviously I am a PR so I'm biased, but I wouldn't recommend people do the Fringe without PR. It’s becoming a more and more important thing for companies to invest in, especially as the Fringe grows. 

I also think for shows that want future life beyond the Fringe, that’s when PR can really help, because having those quotes - whether it’s from reviews or features - to send to the venues they want to talk to or the producers they want to work with in the future, just helps lend a bit more credibility. It’s about looking at those long-term goals.

Last question! What would you say to someone who is thinking of doing Fringe 2020?

They should plan really early. It’s really easy to think ‘I want to go to the Fringe next year and that’s ages away!’ But in fact, it’s really not. We’ll get scripts coming into our office as early as September, which really does make me feel a bit ill - I need some time off! But the bulk of these conversations that we have with companies are December to February. 

I know that this year there were loads of companies who got in touch with us in July [asking us to do their PR], but actually, we begin our PR campaigns [for the Fringe] in March. I think it’s just about remembering the time periods for the Fringe can be a bit elongated, especially for those working in other cities where time frames might be a bit smaller. 

For a London Fringe campaign, we’d normally recommend they start PR campaigns 2 months before. But obviously in Edinburgh it’s much further in advance - we’re talking to long lead publications, and you’re just having to cut through that level of competition. So I’d say: start early!

Thank you to Chloé and the team for helping bring this lovely insight into the industry to our members. If you have questions you’d like us to answer in a future post, send us an email to [email protected]!