Know these things about the media - They’re overworked, and they’re doing the best they can. For every print deadline they have to meet or radio or television show they have to produce, they feel very much the way you do when your show is about to open – hurried, frazzled, worried, hopeful, confident that they forgot something, full of pride, looking forward to the moment when it’s complete. Imagine feeling that way every month or week – or even every day. You need to make their life easier, not harder, if you want them to pay attention to you.
Also, they don’t work for you. They are not duty bound to make you look good or to sell tickets to your show. Their salaries come from news organizations that have wildly different priorities and needs than theater or dance companies, dancers, or theater artists.
Still, you can assume that they like you anyway. They really don’t have to be arts reporters. Most media organizations could always use another person on the metro desk – you know, where reporters cover shootings, stabbings, fires, and local government corruption – and audiences rarely know what they’re missing when arts coverage is cut. People who cover the arts do it because they like it, and they think it’s valuable to the community. Maybe if a little more space were given to the art that people are creating and a little less space to the havoc that people wreak on each other, the media would be providing a more realistic sense of the world we all live in. Many reporters I know have this argument with their editors regularly. And, they generally like performing artists too – but don’t push it. (See above regarding deadline and organizational pressure.)
Making first contact with a press release
Your initial contact with the press about your show should be your press release.
First and foremost, a press release must state clearly the basic information about your show: who, what, where, when, and how much. (You would be surprised how many small theater companies do not present this basic information clearly.) And, while you may have learned that all press releases need to follow a particular format – that they should look like a newspaper article – do not be unreasonably married to this structure.
Press releases for theater events should make the life of the journalist as easy as possible. Following the format that is expected is necessary but don’t be afraid to vary from the format for the sake of clarity. Make sure that who, what, where, when and how much are obvious and easy to read. I usually separate this information from the conventional text of the press release in a complete, simple list. Like this:
Theater Company in My Head presents
Show in My Head
By Alan Berks
Directed by Leah Cooper
Starring: Alan Berks and Leah Cooper
February 1-February 30
(Thursday – Saturday @ 8 pm
Sunday @ 7 pm
Monday, February 30 @ 8 pm = Special Pay-What-You-Can performance)
Location: In My Head Laboratory
155 Mystery Lane
Minneapolis, MN 55408
Tickets = $15
DISCOUNTS = $12 students, seniors or $8 ghosts
FOR RESERVATIONS: 555-###-5555 or showinmyhead.com
Don’t get all crazy with fonts or colors or anything, because it hurts people’s heads.
Second, a press release should intrigue a journalist enough to want to call you about an article. Remember that while you want an article in a newspaper in order to reach a wide audience, journalists have ever so slightly different interests than their readers. Your audience wants to enjoy a show, but journalists want to write about news.
The simple fact that you are doing a show – and it’s a great show and you intend to do it really great – is not news.
When constructing your press release ask the following questions:
- What makes this show special?
- What is new about your production of this show?
- What trends in the theater community might this show be a part of or a reaction against?
- Why will people want to see it?
- What experience will they have when they see it?
- What makes your company special?
- What else do journalists generally want to know (i.e. what is your company history, what is the show’s history, etc.)?
Your press release should suggest stories that may be “news” (i.e. new, intriguing and/or important information) to their audience. For better or worse, the "coolness" or high quality of the show is not news. Instead, ideally, you should be able to articulate a “lead,” or thesis, of a variety of stories in one sentence.
For example: “The Anton Company’s production of the controversial, little-seen Russian classic Alexander and the Gulag is the final show in their third successful season as the only all-Russian, professional theater in the Midwest.” Or: “Alan Berks’ Show in My Mind is a mind-blowing, multi-media experience that uses cutting-edge technology to recreate Facebook live on stage and in your head at the same time.”
In general, you want to keep your press release as concise as possible, but specific details are always better than philosophical generalizations. Avoid broad language like humanity and society if at all possible, as in, “Our show explores our shared humanity and the consequences that our actions have on society.” Also avoid hyperbole. Let the journalists and the audiences decide when something is “brilliant,” “genius,” or “phenomenal.”
Send a comprehensive press release to as much media as possible one week before you begin rehearsals. (Note that Minnesota Monthly and Mpls-St. Paul Magazine need to be alerted 3-4 months before a production if you want them to consider a feature article – or even a tiny spotlight.) Do not focus only on the large media outlets, however.
In fact, depending on the size of your theater, the coverage that is most likely to find an audience who is motivated to see your work may come from smaller neighborhood newspapers like The Bridge or from media with a specific demographic like Good Age. Initially, go ahead and send your press release to everyone from the most obscure blogger to your old hometown newspaper. You never know who might bite (though you should be able to guess).
If you don’t hear anything in a week or two, you should resend the press release in formats that are edited to appeal to particular news agencies – and, this time, target your mailing more specifically. For example, the Minnesota Daily will only write about your show when they can see the connection to their student audience. Ideally, you can simply cut and paste your comprehensive press release into a targeted, concise document for the Minnesota Daily, and others. Don’t keep bothering the Minnesota Daily at this point, if you don’t have a student or a university employee in your show, or you can’t make a really compelling case that this show is uniquely suited to students. Neither the press nor you have time to waste.
If your press release contains all the information the media needs, and you’ve emphasized why your show is newsworthy, you may get a phone call from a journalist. Or, you may get a call if the press already knows you or your theater company well. Because the press is so busy, however, the odds are very high that you will need to follow-up with additional emails and/or phone calls no matter what.
Following-up is a delicate matter. ❦
Part 2 (February 9): How-to follow up with the press.