The Edinburgh Festival: Bringing in the crowds

How do PROs put together a strategy for a huge event like the Edinburgh Festival? Jo Bowman goes backstage to find out

Actors, jugglers, stilt-walkers, poets and comedians, plus thousands of theatre, dance, music and comedy fans along with at least 400 international journalists, all coming together in a matter of weeks is enough to make even the calmest PRO shudder.

For the Edinburgh Festival's PR team, dealing with this number of people is a challenge but, says the festival's marketing and public affairs director Joanna Baker, the key to a seamless event is preparing the PR strategy a year or more in advance.

Leading the PR team through what will be her 11th festival, Baker is in charge of five of the festival's 24-strong permanent staff. Typically eight extra people are taken on nearer the event with a press and PR budget of £46,000. That includes six weeks of events and running the press centre.

Their task is to ensure that performers, audiences and the media are where they want to be when they should be, and involves dealing with everyone from opera singers to hairdressers.

Baker's team has to hit the ground running as soon as the previous year's festival closes. Even if the line-up for the following year is still being negotiated, the team starts work with international tour operators who arrange trips for people interested in ballet, opera or classical music. Ahead of the programme's official unveiling in March, they work on previews with long-lead publications - a risky exercise as acts can pull out and big names can be included at the last minute.

The target for media coverage is 'nearly everybody'. In the UK, that means mainly the broadsheets and the broadcast media. Elsewhere it includes specialist arts magazines, newspapers and travel titles. The team includes one press officer - funded partly by the Edinburgh and Scotland tourist organisations - who works with travel trade journalists only during the festival.

People who have bought tickets before are contacted by direct mail or email, and potential new audience members are targeted each year. This year, there's a push to get American audiences back after a post-9/11 lull and to draw more people from minority ethnic communities and young people in social inclusion partnership areas, with group talks, leafleting and targeted advertising. This work comes from the £30,000 research and development budget.

Best deal

Once booked, sponsors work with the festival's PROs to establish how both sides can get the best out of the partnership.

The team also works with Edinburgh 'front-liners', such as hotel concierges, taxi drivers and hairdressers, who deal with festival visitors to ensure they know what's on. A briefing was held this year with 100 front-liners where free tickets to some of the shows were given out so they know what they are talking about.

The Military Tattoo, the Jazz & Blues Festival, Film Festival and Book Festival run at roughly the same time as the international festival, but the biggest of the other events in Edinburgh is the Fringe. It is for this that press officer Leroy Harris and his colleagues assist the lesser-known acts by attempting to drum up audience and media interest.

The promotional budget is scarce for the 1,700 Fringe acts, so performers take their own PR initiative. But the press office offers guidance on how to sell a show, write press releases, and what to include in fliers.

It also gives out a media contacts list with everybody's lead times and preference for receiving releases by fax or email, with or without pictures.

Once the Fringe kicks off, the PR team runs a press and performer centre, where acts can read their reviews and find out who has taken press tickets to their shows, and where the press can go to arrange interviews.

With work on next year's event starting before the 2004 Edinburgh International Festival has drawn to a close, long-term PR preparation for a festival of this size clearly plays a major role in its success.

THE FRINGE EVENT

Graphic designer Alister Coyne is, for the first time, turning his hand to PR when the curtain goes up on the opening night of Fringe production The Good, The Bad and The Lonely, having been roped in as the press contact and publicist for the show.

Coyne has turned to the Fringe press office and its guide to DIY PR.

It has also given him a press contacts list, although Coyne is primarily looking for coverage in backpacker magazines rather than in the national dailies. There are only 60 seats in the theatre but he says they will be happy if they half-fill it every night.

So far, Coyne has sent out a press release to selected media and from that has set up an interview with one of the target titles, Three Weeks. He will follow up others by phone.

Show director Elise Even-Chaim also managed to get some publicity by camping out overnight to be first in line for tickets to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo; when the local media interviewed those at the head of the queue, she was able to give the show a plug.

Journalists are being invited to a premiere-night party at St Christopher's Inn, which is sponsoring the show, and a photocall was set for 13 August, chosen because it was a week after the Fringe starts, when journalists are searching for new festival events to write about.

THE SPONSOR

The Bank of Scotland is sponsoring the Queen's Hall Series of morning chamber music performances at this year's festival, as it has for the past few years. The shows are broadcast on Radio 3, so the bank's presence is evident far beyond Edinburgh.

'Our motivation behind the sponsorship has changed over the years, from a chance to highlight the fact we're a big brand, to showing the Bank of Scotland as investing in Scotland and the arts,' says the bank's sponsorship manager Torquil MacLeod.

This has become more important since the bank's merger with the Halifax Group in 2001, after which there was some concern in Scotland that the bank might forget its roots and stop funding local arts groups, many of which couldn't survive without financial backing. The bank is also supporting Opera North this year and both events give the company good opportunities to entertain clients.

Bank of Scotland, whose investment in the festival is about £350,000 a year, also sponsors the grand finale fireworks concert at the end of the programme.

MacLeod says that while there is signage with bank logos at its sponsored events, this is quite tightly controlled by festival organisers, as festival-goers object to too much overt branding, so sponsors are encouraged to do something more discreet.

THE PERRIER AWARDS

The Perrier Comedy Awards, created in 1981 by the festival sponsor, have become synonymous with the Fringe.

Anna Arthur PR MD Anna Arthur, who has handled PR for the event for the past ten years, works on the project for about five months of the year, looking for media coverage at the nomination stage, through to the competition and into October, when the winner headlines the Perrier Comedy Awards shows in London.

Arthur helps awards founder Nica Burns organise the judging panel. Selling in stories starts in the week of the judging when the shortlist, and later the winner, are announced.

'At this stage it's a news story so we try and get next-day blanket coverage in all the broadsheets and some tabloids,' she says. 'Once the winner has been announced, the next stage is the London season and so the focus of activity is selling tickets for the three West End shows. This is done through a mix of radio and TV appearances by the winner and the other nominees, plus interviews and listings.'

Other issues to address include the lack of women on the shortlist, which has remained the case despite the judging panel consisting of more women than men.Comics taking part are now more organised - all have PROs and agents so Arthur now liaises a lot more with various managers.

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