A PR tale : the lessons we learned
Updated: Nov 11, 2018
✨ MELANIE FULLBROOK
This year, for the first time in my career, I stepped fully onto the PR train.
With Revels In Hand ready to go we decided to approach some PR companies to hold our hand through an official launch to the world. We knew we needed expertise to make sure we achieved what we wanted; we knew we wanted to do an event and we knew how high-profile the press was that we wanted to target. Luckily lots of the companies we approached were excited about the idea of helping us sell the private theatre experience, so we attended meetings, heard pitches and ended up - without much to go on other than first impression and instinct - signing with Munch PR. I will say, we made an excellent choice! Led by Lizzie Earl they are an extraordinarily giving, talented and well connected team. It was a joy hearing their initial pitch and how well they understood what we are trying to achieve. They almost sold our own idea back to us in a way that made us want to jump on board for the ride, forgetting momentarily that it was our concept and business they were talking about! Their power point presentation about our targets and aims was peppered with some of our production photos and backstage shots, but presented in such a way that our images looked brand new even to us. We left feeling invigorated about our potential.
Interview Prep - "Nothing is off the record"
With our contract signed, the real work began: preparing for press interviews. And our very first was no small fry, with Nick Curtis from The Telegraph. Not only had Nick welcomed us into his own home to showcase what we do best and do an actual private theatre performance for him and his guests, but he'd also invited us the week before for tea to have a proper full length interview. Dictaphone on record and notepad ready to write shorthand notes, we embarked on our first attempt. Meanwhile a member of our PR team sat by, watching how we coped and ready to give feedback afterwards: it was almost like an exam! Nonetheless we enjoyed a relaxed, friendly and somewhat lengthy interview (we were there for an hour and half), which not only enabled Nick to get to know us properly but enabled us to get all our key messages across - perhaps not succinctly - with all three of us sharing the time. We were allowed to ramble and anecdote and joke and get into the swing, which was a joyous first experience before suddenly realising lesson number 1: The more you say, the more likely it is that something will be taken out of context. Everything that comes out of your mouth is fair game. The longer the interview, the less control we had over how we would look if our words were taken out of context. Luckily Nick loved what we do and wrote an incredible review but it was an important learning curve, as our PR representative discussed with us post-interview. You suddenly realise that a joke about yourself or your colleague or a comment on anything vaguely political or controversial could easily come back to bite you when taken out of the context in which you meant it. "Keep it brief" and "Nothing is off the record" became our first lessons in the skill of interviewing!
Launch Event - "It ain't over til the Veuve trolley's wheeled out"
Our first feature interview done, then came the next big hurdle: the official launch event. We knew our event needed to make journalists excited but we didn't want it to veer away from the true theatrical roots of what we do.
We are a raw and hard working rep style company who challenge our actors in a way that goes above and beyond many other jobs. They have to adapt, cut, move and learn under time restraints that many would wince at. But not a Revels In Hand actor; they are a particular breed! They thrive on the adrenaline and energy from giving their all in brand new surroundings, often with a different set of cast members than before, performing within metres of the audience, with no dimmed lighting to hide behind and always working in an intense, joyous ensemble atmosphere. Luckily we secured an incredible cast for our launch event and the next challenge was securing the perfect venue.
After a few ups and downs of nearly-ideas falling through, we were lucky enough to secure a meeting with the Shangri-La hotel at the Shard and they were well worth the wait. Considered one of the most luxurious hotels in the world, their love of our private theatre idea led them to partner with us for the launch and beyond. We had access to their stunningly beautifully main suite, their generous team, the view and their Veuve Cliquot trolley, which all gave the perfect accompaniment to a night of intimate, unique theatrical entertainment. We couldn't have been luckier. But the day was never going to be simple! Lucy has already detailed the adrenaline-fuelled events of that day in a previous post (read all about it here), but needless to say, from a PR learning point of view, the day was an education.
Up until the guests walked through the door, my business partners and I (all actors in the show as well as producers) were being photographed in various lighting states and positions for The Guardian piece, as well as ensuring our own press photographer, Tomas Turpie, was getting backstage shots. It's no exaggeration to say there was only a matter of minutes to get into character, focus on the actual acting and prepare to give the best performance we could. A somewhat manic sensation when you realise that this was four years of hard work coming to a head.
The journalists we'd invited were responsive and warm, laughing and listening with rapt attention and the plays went by like a shot. Is that it? Absolutely not! We quickly realised doing the actual performance, showing off our product, was only half the battle. Straight afterwards it was time for a casual press drinks reception. We had lots of questions coming from many people and it's very easy to forget you're talking to journalists officially when it felt so celebratory post-show. "Always stay alert" was the lesson learnt. Don't let the sense of relief let you veer off message. See point 1a again: Nothing is off the record!
We were thrilled with the press coverage we got: Guardian, Times, Luxury Lifestyle Magazine, FT: How to Spend It, The Stage, Telegraph etc. But again it was a steep learning curve. It is a journalist's job to find the story and get to the core of people very fast. Chatting away, exhausted, champagne in hand, I was so so aware that this was still work. Until the Veuve Cliquot trolley was wheeled out and the last guest had left, everything that was said mattered.
Live Radio - "Let it go!"
Launch done, the PR journey entered it's most difficult phase. Live interviews! On one particular occasion, I had an individual radio interview scheduled for just an hour before an event - so in full costume, mid-rehearsal, I had to run out of the room to talk for 15 minutes on BBC local radio. For radio interviews over the phone, you sit in the corner of a quiet room (or in Lucy's case in one instance - a car pulled over in a service station halfway to Edinburgh), sometimes not even knowing the name of who you'll be speaking with, and a producer calls, briefly says hello before counting down and suddenly you're live. I had notes on my key messages in front of me (God we loved our notes on key messages!) but you can never predict what questions you will get or how the personality of your interviewer will impact on the way you respond. It goes so fast and before you realise it one anecdote you thought would be fun to throw in has taken up 2 minutes of valuable air time. The most unexpected question was probably one regarding Emma Watson and lucky charms... In live interview, there's absolutely no opportunity to worry about wasted time or wasted opportunities though. You can't perpetuate the problem by correcting or adapting what you've said. Onwards and upwards is the name of the game. Or as Idina sung, "Let it go!" In the end, the result of our various radio interviews done by telephone were great - the PR team were happy - but the experience was a new one for all of us and incredibly interesting to learn from. My head was full of what I needed to get across, but also the need to be myself and be relaxed and personable, which is even harder when you're just a voice on the phone. The hardest thing I think with interviews is that you never know how you're coming across until you listen back, and in trying to be natural and comfortable it often means that by engaging in real conversation with your interviewer, you forget what you're meant to be focused on.
Our radio interviews went one stage further with an invitation from BBC Radio Oxford for all three founding revellers to do an interview in the studio, including a performance segment from one of our shows. Again a new format and new challenges. Sitting in front of microphones (with me separated from Lucy and Freddie by a table), we had two minutes to say hello and fill in the interviewer before a song faded out, a button was pressed and we were live. Negotiating who is answering what when there are three of you is a whole fun game in itself! But at least on radio, you can mime and gesture to make it clear and spread the load. And there was definitely a lot of that. Lucy and Freddie performing a section of one of our shows presented a challenge all of its own as well: we had to select the perfect extract, something that was self-contained, that relied on nothing visual to make sense of the text, and something that represented the service. Lucky for us, Noël Coward is on our menu at the moment and the wordsmith that he is requires very little added bells and whistles, even when on stage. Even so, Lucy and Freddie recounted afterwards how lines that are now practically woven into their DNA suddenly seemed to fly out of their brains under the live radio scenario! Nonetheless it went wonderfully and it was joyous to see the Radio DJ chuckling along silently to the script happening across the table from her.
Live TV - "Just mention Footlights!"
The last hurdle in our PR training was live television interview! Definitely the most challenging.
On a beautiful Sunday morning in August, we were invited into the Sky News studios to be the entertainment portion of their Sunrise breakfast show. We'd been lucky to have a morning of trial interviews with a media guru the day before, which was incredibly helpful but didn't necessarily make us feel any less pressured! The following things became clear to us during our training session:
There's concise and there's concise. We had to answer questions as succinctly as possible as we only had 4 minutes air time in total.
We realised that certain phrases we loved to use naturally didn't sound right on air.
We learnt that over using your hands and your eyebrows makes you look like a crazy person! Keep hands on lap, keep hands on lap, keep hands on lap.
We were told with brute force that certain facts are interesting to the public and certain ones aren't. If our time at Cambridge University came up, just mention the Footlights. Nothing else is worth going into!
With all these tips swimming through our minds, we bundled into taxis at 7am that took us straight from our homes and into the studio's hair and makeup. You're sat getting spruced up - realising, with distress, how much makeup you need to look half alive on screen that early in the morning - and on the TV in the corner of the room, you can hear the interviewers giving introductory "later on in today's programme" about yourselves. Then you sit in the waiting room (or anxiously pace in the waiting room) before being grabbed by a sound guy who straps a microphone to you in super-speed time, throws you into the studio and again you have two minutes to settle down, shake the host's hand and then the cameras start rolling. We had a wonderfully comic start, whereby the interviewer gave a brief introduction then asked "Who wants to go first?" whereupon Lucy spontaneously muttered "Oh god" under her breath, making her the obvious first victim. Honestly, watch the interview back, you can hear her. Needless to say, the interview went by like a flash. We all felt like we'd said odd things (Freddie commented on his pyjamas...) but all in all we managed to come out of it with a good piece of coverage. We were tremendously proud. As were our PR team. As were our loved ones. As were vague acquaintances who happened to be watching Sky News at the time. The absurdities of live TV!
And with that our first foray into professional PR ended. Nothing is off the record, it ain't over til the Veuve trolley's wheeled out, let it go and just mention Footlights.
What a roller coaster month!