Publicity 101 for LA’s Small and Midsize Theaters

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Ken Werther, David Elzer, Judith Borne, Lucy Pollak, Phil Sokoloff and Jerry Charlson at the 2012 LADCC Awards. Photo by Ed Krieger.

Unsung heroes daily stoke the fires of our theater community, from stage managers and fundraisers to those who build sets and costumes into the wee hours of the morning. But perhaps no one works more diligently and quietly behind the scenes than the publicists. They carefully plan their campaigns months ahead, relentlessly follow up in a difficult media climate for coverage, cultivate a client’s best possible image and contribute what some might find unexpected — a passion for the continued strength of Los Angeles theater.

With fees that can range anywhere from the very modest — in rare cases even pro bono — to steeper price tags upwards of $5,000 for a single project, the independent publicists who represent most of LA’s small and midsize theaters share common goals and insights.

LA STAGE Times asked some of LA’s longest-tenured theater publicists to discuss their passion for the job, their place in the greater LA theater landscape, the cursed blessings of technology and a few of the things that bug them. Among those who commented are Judith Borne, Jerry Charlson, David Elzer, Libby Huebner, Sandra Kuker, Lucy Pollak, Phil Sokoloff, Laura Stegman and Ken Werther.

But first, a lesson for clarity”¦

Publicity 101
Merriam-Webster defines publicity as “information with news value issued as a means of gaining public attention or support.” Or, as many of LA’s theater publicists describe it, “the things you can do for free to get the word out.” This is exactly what they want you to know about their jobs.

Laura Stegman. Photo by Hugh Stegman.

Publicity can include everything from creating calendar listings and press releases to pitching feature articles to bringing in reviewers and tie-ins with other events to posting and creating website links to articles about a show or company. Yes, these things are “free” in theory. But a good publicist’s value is in the media contacts and personal relationships that turn pitches and press releases into real publicity. The problem is that those relationships are built over time, and a publicist still has to work the connections to make progress — with no guarantees on the outcome.

“I think if there’s a universal misunderstanding about what a publicist does, it’s related to the volume of work that goes into generating a story and making the story happen,” says Stegman. “And it’s not always going to sell tickets. It’s not even a guarantee that the story or review will happen.”

Publicists find that some clients misunderstand publicity altogether, confusing it with marketing efforts — which is actually the paid advertising created and distributed to promote a production or a company. Publicity is often part of a theater’s larger marketing budget, with the two components working in tandem. With communication skills ranked as a most valuable asset, good publicists will tell you exactly what it is they will do for a production and exactly how they will attempt to do it.

Taking on a Job

“The question I constantly ask prospective clients is: Who is the audience of your show? “ says PR veteran — and occasional actor — Phil Sokoloff. “If it takes the producers longer than 15 seconds to come up with an answer, the project is in trouble already.”

Some of LA’s publicists have backgrounds in acting, theater management and related fields of marketing. A natural passion for the arts combined with up-front messaging about expectations are key when publicists take on new clients.

“I read the scripts,” says professional actress-turned PR aficionado Borne. “I think about how it engages me and what kind of angle I could pitch that would bring something to the table for [a client]”¦and if it doesn’t really interest me or I’m not the right person, I’ll turn a project down.”

This candor about the production is a crucial element for a publicist to provide support for any theater company. Stegman and Huebner, who join forces from their independent companies serving a slate of mostly midsize performing arts clients, agree.

“As a publicist for theater you have to love it. You have to love the art form. You have to love the genre,” says Huebner. “It is a different kind of work and experience working in the arts”¦We also get tremendous satisfaction when we get a big story or a key review for a client.”

“And we won’t take on a client that we don’t think we can get results for,” adds Stegman. “We really look for a good fit. Sometimes we get approached by authors but we don’t have expertise in books”¦so we refer them elsewhere.”

Lucy Pollak

As many publicists talk about their long-term clients, the work may be all professional, but the sentiment for the success of individual companies and artists is often deeply personal. Some of them emphasize particular techniques.

Pollak takes pride in the craft of developing a great press release. “I believe the press release is so important,” she explains. “It really is the calling card for the production and the company. I work very hard to brainstorm what goes into it and work all the angles, even if it’s subtle.”

Elzer, whose company DemandPR provides a one-stop publicity and marketing shop, urges companies to “know what you’re selling,” and then emphatically repeats “ target, target, target.”

The Challenges of Change

From technology to financial resources, the LA theater community has weathered uncertainties and upheavals over the years — theater companies losing permanent homes, financial crises leading to bankruptcy. Social media and other relatively recent technology tools have affected publicity as much as they have changed the business of producing on smaller stages.

“You used to have to hire someone to stuff envelopes,” Stegman says, describing the antiquated delivery of press releases. “The fact that we’ve been able to adapt to [technology] and take advantage of it is amazing. It’s a real joy to not have to go to the post office.”

Like many communication-driven occupations, a process that used to require phone calls and personal meetings has evolved into the multi-tasking paradise of email, texting and digital media.

“I think it’s harder to develop relationships,” says Borne. “But once you do, you can keep up with them.”

Libby Huebner. Photo by Ella Johnson.

Several publicists also love the freedom multiple technologies afford them. They can now work from home offices with flexible work schedules and during extended travel. They can even check email or text important information while sitting backstage at an important event — not to mention the reduced costs passed on to clients with a mostly paperless and postage-free business.

“I remember when if you were going to show footage of a performance you had to hire a videographer who could shoot broadcast video,” says Huebner. “Giant cumbersome tapes were needed to send out, but now we’re posting online, sending a link, plus the volumes of storage we have from past work we’ve done.”

But the cost savings to clients have also fueled a more frenetic work load for publicists.

“You can get so much more done”¦sometimes to the detriment to quality of life because you can keep working,” says Stegman. “Our ability to communicate today with both the press and [our colleagues] is extraordinary.” But the ability to be on call 24/7 also creates increased expectations for publicists, increasing workloads.

“There’s particularly been a time element that has changed everything”¦the immediacy that people demand things,” says Charlson. “People demand answers right away on things.”

Charlson adds his personal philosophy to the dangers of a more impatient world. “We should be careful to not lose the importance of trying to maintain a healthy life balance,” he says. “And respecting people’s time off.”

Social media and easy access to the creation and management of blogs and websites has empowered small theaters and one-off production teams with managing their own marketing campaigns online. And while all publicists recognize the power of social marketing tools, few see themselves as a provider of social media outreach. Simply from a practical point of view, they keep their publicity focus on media contacts and press coverage.

Ken Werther

“Usually by the time they come to me they’ve already created the website and Facebook event page,” says Werther. “But when I’m fortunate enough to have reviews come through, I will post links relentlessly. And I really like that aspect of social media. To me”¦that’s how I’m doing my job.”

As many theaters in Los Angeles continue to meet the growing demands of social media and   websites, publicists work hard to continue filling the gaps for publicity. Because, as social media and online activity have flourished, traditional journalism and its subsequent arts-related coverage have diminished.

Professional coverage from major publications such as the LA Times, Backstage and LA Weekly has reduced in response to budget cuts, with the number of available reviewers and space for feature stories dwindling each year. Filling some of the press coverage void are independent online sources offering reviews and features — from amateur and professional journalists alike — providing a deep well of untested waters for publicists to navigate for coverage.

“I think all our media coverage is more diluted than it used to be, and it takes more time for the good coverage to be there,” says Charlson. “With [independent] blogs you don’t always know how many hits they will get. And with so many of the writers not getting paid at those blogs the writers can only do so much”¦I think they get tired and worn out.”

Do No Harm and Wear a Thick Skin

Alongside maintaining media contacts and professional relationships, a publicist quickly becomes a champion of message. As they read scripts, visit rehearsals and talk to design teams, publicists spend a large part of their time developing the story about the story a play is trying to tell. It may also be telling the story of an entire season or a theater company itself.

“Taking a message that’s a paragraph long and distilling it to a phrase so the public gets it,” says Stegman. “That’s a value that we bring to a client.”

As editors are flooded with options, a well-timed and intriguing press release can make a huge difference. “A big part of publicity is planning,” explains Pollak. “I’m very careful to target who gets my press releases. I spend a lot of time on press releases, rewriting them for the individual or publication I’m sending them to. And I proof-read like crazy. I can’t stand mistakes.”

As an extension of a show’s producing arm, publicists experience the thrills of success along with the disappointments. “I’m very passionate about what I do, and I always want to feel like I did the best possible job,” says Werther. “I never want to have to walk away and feel like I didn’t do everything possible.”

Sandra Kuker

Kuker, who provides publicity through her PR4Plays as part of the online ticketing company PLAYS411, says “My biggest thrill is after I’ve submitted a press release and one of the major publications says I’ve been assigned to review your show,” says Kuker. “It is the most thrilling high for me. People don’t always know how much of a thankless job it can be”¦.but those moments make it all worth it.”

Publicists take the lows with the highs. No matter how hard they work, there are always those moments when the press doesn’t make it or reviews simply aren’t what everyone had in mind.

“But as long as reviews are fair you can’t complain,” offers Pollak. “That’s the name of the game. It’s their job to put on a show and my job to get them press. The press then is what it is.”

With so many small theaters competing for coverage, publicists keep constant watch on their relationship-focused profession. Many of them know or know of each other. They’re respectful and knowledgeable of each other’s strengths and track records. They try to keep focused on the positive, but  many also express concern and care about the future of theater in Los Angeles.

Elzer, who also produces theater, suggests theater companies take the time to “brand” themselves as well as determine “what else they offer” besides a chance to see a play?

“When people go to the theater and have good experiences and they love the work, they become a subscriber/donor/champion and volunteer,” says Elzer. “Give those people a reason to get on that train. Make them feel they are part of the [theater company’s] family and part of the arts.”

What’s it gonna cost?

Many publicists find work through referrals. But times do require them to meet new clients and determine if the relationship will lead to a successful endeavor. It’s at this time when the important conversation about money will happen. And it will always be a negotiation, period. But chances are that whatever your budget, a publicist in Los Angeles can help you.

“It’s hard for small theater companies because it’s an expenditure,” says Huebner. “And we can’t guarantee results. We can pitch it, we can try hard”¦but it may not pan out. Even if stories do pan out we don’t have editorial control.”

David Elzer

Several publicists agree with that statement and advise theater companies to exercise caution toward any publicist who claims to “guarantee results” such as reviews, news coverage or audiences. These results are not within the control of the publicists.

“I feel like producers by and large do not understand what publicists do,” add Werther. “Everyone thinks they know how to get publicity for a show, but they don’t want to pay for it.”

And while many independent publicists make their living from small theater clients, they are only able to do so through the volume of individual companies they are able to manage. This creates a sometimes hectic workload.

“But ultimately I love what I do and it’s so rewarding. It’s not monetarily rewarding,” says Kuker. “But it’s so rewarding internally”¦I just find it very gratifying. I love being able to pick up that phone and say, “˜Guess who I got for your show?’”

“So”¦when is the Los Angeles Times coming?”

Not only do publicists fight for understanding of their profession but also for a recognition of the things clients and media contacts do that simply make their jobs harder. Despite all their best efforts, certain misconceptions exist about what and how they provide services.

Dear producers, please don’t:

— Blame the publicist when tickets don’t sell, stories don’t happen or reviewers don’t show up.

— Insist on re-writing press releases against the suggestions of the publicist.

— Delay getting key photo images, media or marketing materials in time.

— Think that having a celebrity makes it easier”¦it actually creates more work for the publicist.

Dear journalists/media outlets, please don’t:

— Ignore the need for coverage for all arts organizations throughout Southern California.

— Print typos, wrong information, or not show up after requesting comps to see a show.

— Completely ignore personal inquiries waiting for a response.

Publicists have to deal with postponements of openings, after several press people are booked into the opening night — often the media won’t re-book to see the show. They fret over the frustration of knowing a company has created a particularly good piece of work that never gets featured or reviewed by the media.

“But you also have to have realistic expectations,” explains Pollak. “Some shows are more timely or have some luck. But please also know that I can’t control the press”¦if they’ll show up and what they’ll print.”

“And it’s hard not taking it personally,” says Werther. “Even when I say to my clients that I have done everything humanly possible to get what they want for a show”¦there is a very fine line between reality and the perception of negativity.”

A few other things Producers should know”¦

“When you are disappointed, we are disappointed.”

“We do take it personally when things don’t go well.”

“We want everything we do to succeed.”

“We care about what happens because it’s our name on the project, too.”

Phil Sokoloff. Photo by Ed Krieger.

Theater in Los Angeles ranges from the one-off, single show from a solo producer to seasoned theater companies who sometimes hire staff publicists when they reach certain budgetary levels. But the independent Los Angeles publicists continue to educate the newbie producers to the market, while carving out new possibilities for the veterans and up-and-comers.

“We have to figure out a way to keep growing the audience,” says Sokoloff. “We still have about 100,000 people seeing shows. We can do more than that.”

They will continue to gladly support from the shadows the work of LA’s hundreds of theater companies.

“If the audience only knew what it took, they would never believe it,” says Werther. “But if they did know”¦it would ruin the whole thing. It would take the whole magic out of the thing in the first place.”

Borne agrees. “There’s a certain finesse or subtlety where you don’t see the hand of the publicist,” says Borne. “The thing I really love about the business is trying to create those angles that I as a reader would be most interested in.”

And while it’s not always perfect, there are moments when the planets align and a publicist can really love the job and enjoy its perks.

“I can’t believe we get paid to do the job that we do,” says Huebner. “You’ll be having a casual conversation about how are the holidays going and telling someone all the events — meaning work — you have coming up. Well, how bad is that?  That I get paid to go see theater or hear a concert? It’s actually pretty great.”

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