Media Analysis: The right cue is critical to coverage

As The Sunday Telegraph ushers in a new theatre critic, Donna Werbner goes behind the scenes to explore the tricks and techniques that PROs deploy to curry reviewers' favour and bag stage productions coverage.

In the National Theatre's current production Theatre of Blood, an actor is driven mad by scathing reviews and sets about murdering the London drama critics who destroyed his reputation. It is a fantasy that, no doubt, many bitter theatre PROs have at some point indulged in. But worse than a bad review is no review at all.

Persuading national theatre critics to come to your production is no easy task. 'When you've been doing this job for as long as most of us have you know instinctively which shows are important for your paper and which you must fit into your diary,' explains Mail on Sunday theatre critic Georgina Brown.

With up to six major productions opening each week, and only four to five nights of the critic's time available, it can be difficult for smaller or fringe theatres to get a look-in. 'There is no point in a small production begging me to go to its play on the first night of a major, high-profile West End show,' advises Daily Mail theatre critic Quentin Letts.

It is important, he adds, for the production to tailor its approach to the critic and newspaper. 'For example, my personal tastes veer towards family entertainment rather than heavy-duty, left-wing polemics,' he says.

Passionate approach

The Sunday Telegraph's new theatre critic, Mandrake columnist Tim Walker, is more open to smaller productions outside the West End. 'I think theatre critics should be willing to try out a new vintage. As long as PROs are imaginative and passionate, theatre critics will respond to that passion,' he says.

Promoting a famous cast member or tying the subject of the play to a topical news hook will also help persuade critics to make time for lesser-known venues, argues Ambassador Theatre Group press officer John Chittenden.

'With smaller, regional productions, it's all about the show. PROs need to figure out what a particular newspaper likes or what a particular journalist is into. Don't just randomly chuck press releases at them,' he says.

Meanwhile, PROs from larger venues are aware of the need to emphasise the subject matter and cast of the production above all else. To ensure she is up to speed with the play's issues and themes, National Theatre head of press Lucinda Morrison always discusses the production with its director and playwright (if still alive) before starting any publicity drive.

'Highlight the substance of the play,' advises Brown. 'Sending me croissants, toothbrushes and condoms in the post might make me notice your press release but they won't make me want to go to the play.'

But The Times theatre critic Benedict Nightingale says 'hammering' and 'pestering' critics can work. 'My paper reviewed the same musical three times, largely because of the persistence of the production's PROs,' he admits.

Tight tactics

Persistence is one of the few tactics PROs can employ in this industry.

Because critics want to remain objective, most are impervious to the usual methods showbiz publicists use to influence journalists, such as offering access to celebrities and VIP parties.

'I never want to meet the cast I'm reviewing - it might compromise me and I don't want to feel anxious when I'm writing the review,' explains Brown.

'Critics are dowdy - so the more down at heel the PR man, the better he goes down with the critics,' says The Spectator theatre critic Toby Young.

An extra ticket for a friend and food and drink are the most that critics will accept from a theatre PRO. 'You can't really influence a critic,' admits Barbican head of media and PR Claire Hyde. 'So we mainly concentrate our efforts on arts feature writers and editors.'

A national newspaper interview with the play's director, writer or celebrity actor can have 'strong financial benefits', she says. Coverage outside the arts pages can also help boost ticket sales.

Meanwhile, targeting local media, events publications and theatre trade press such as The Stage is especially crucial for smaller productions.

But the most important area of growth, argues theatre PR specialist Anna Arthur, is theatre review blogging.

'It's no longer just about critics and art editors,' she says. 'It's about word of mouth and trying to bring in the next generation of theatre-goers who aren't necessarily regular newspaper readers.'


- Evening Standard: Nicholas De Jongh

- Daily Mail: Quentin Letts 0207 2332 413

- The Daily Telegraph: Charles Spencer

- Financial Times: Alastair Macaulay

- The Guardian: Michael Billington

- The Independent: Paul Taylor

- The Times: Benedict Nightingale

- The Independent on Sunday: Kate Bassett

- Mail on Sunday: Georgina Brown 020 7793 8534

- The Sunday Telegraph: Tim Walker

- The Sunday Times: Victoria Segal

- The Spectator: Toby Young

- New Statesman: Michael Portillo

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