Promoting a documentary can be similar to promoting a political candidate, with opening day the equivalent of Election Day. PR pros, particularly those with public affairs experience, are treating them as such, hoping their efforts will lead to a successful premiere.
"We've definitely seen, with different kinds of documentaries, more and more folks are looking at them almost like miniature political campaigns, and the documentary is the candidate," says Mike Thompson, SVP of Alexandria, VA-based CRC Public Relations. "The work that we have done in the public affairs arena and understanding the need to approach things a little differently than just straight entertainment play can be very helpful. That's not saying entertainment PR is unimportant, it's just a different approach."
"Certainly, there is an entertainment value with documentaries,” adds Joe DePlasco, MD of (DKC), “but you are asking people to think and look in a different way."
DKC approaches all documentary films as public affairs accounts, he adds. The agency works with PBS, HBO, and other networks, and is currently promoting films including, The Trial of Saddam Hussein and Ken Burns' series The National Parks.
"In Hollywood, it's all about driving people for that opening weekend, but that's not too dissimilar to getting 51% of the vote on Election Day," says Pete Snyder, founder and CEO of New Media Strategies, which is currently working on a documentary called Obsession, about radical Islam. "The tactics are very much the same."
These tactics include getting the documentary into the news, reaching out to supporters of the causes in the film, and hosting local educational events.
"Documentary films have the ability to get into mainstream news stories if they have something to add to the story or the news cycle," says Adam Segal, the president of The 2050 Group, a Washington-based PR firm that focuses on work with nonprofits and corporations working to affect public opinion and policy. Leading up to the 2004 election, Segal, while at Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications, worked on Brothers in Arms about former presidential candidate John Kerry and his service in Vietnam.*
"The documentary film that I [was] promoting at the time was able to provide first-hand accounts of people who served with Kerry," he says. "We were able to get it into the New York Times and major daily newspapers as a front-section news story, not a review."
The 2050 Group is currently promoting Trouble the Water, a film about Hurricane Katrina, and plans to pitch to reporters surrounding the third anniversary of Katrina.
Segal also says grassroots tactics, especially online outreach, including YouTube trailers and Facebook groups, can be an "inexpensive, but effective" way to engage supporters and those interested in the cause.
Snyder explains that his company builds early buzz through early screenings and interviews for like-minded bloggers.
Using the PBS local network, DKC hosted local panel events around the country for a recent documentary, The War. It also partnered with the Library of Congress for a large-scale history project in which the public could submit content in audio, video, or written form.
"[We want] to get people to have a discussion about a topic, in this case World War II, so they feel more invested in the project," DePlasco says, "which ultimately increases the likelihood that they will tune in. There is just a huge hunger out there for information. You can go into cities large and small and people will turn out."
DePlasco also mentions a specific tactic that DKC used while promoting Burns' film Unforgiveable Blackness, about African-American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson who served a sentence for violating The Mann Act, which prohibited transporting females for immoral purposes. The agency, and other groups, put together a bi-partisan task force to seek a posthumous pardon for Johnson. While the groups didn't receive the pardon, they did generate significant coverage, DePlasco says.
These unique campaign tactics bring an engaging and interactive feel to promoting a documentary, encouraging viewers to get involved beyond just watching the film.
"The whole notion of documentaries, they tend to be a bit scrappier," Snyder says. "It's kind of like an upstart political campaign. You're coming in out of nowhere, you have funding on a shoelace. So you take effective and proven tactics to get your message out on the cheap."
Causes and issues are the main focus in documentaries, which means promotions can be similar to public affairs campaigns.
Documentaries have the chance to move beyond the entertainment section in media coverage, so keep an eye on the news cycle.
Tactics including online outreach and educational events can mobilize interested parties.
* CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article implied that Adam Segal was with The 2050 Group while working on the documentary Brothers In Arms. He was actually with Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications at the time. PRWeek regrets the error.