by Keith Diggle
In another article on this website I said that Advertising can only be effective if it takes place in an ‘atmosphere of favourable awareness’. It is one of the old saws of show business that the best publicity is by word-of-mouth and this indeed plays a most important part in the development of an ‘atmosphere’ – but opinions and information passed on by friends and colleagues to possible customers can rarely be relied upon by the arts presenter; that is why the activity known as Product PR is necessary as a means of organising, as much as possible, the dissemination of information that helps form favorable attitudes. The word that is passed along by mouth is not only a view based on direct personal experience but is, more often than not, a secondhand opinion derived from something seen on television, read in a newspaper or heard on radio. Word-of-mouth publicity is basically gossip and good Product PR can feed it and help it pass along the good news in preference to the bad.
If someone were to offer you a one week holiday in, say, Crete, in June, hotel accommodation and half-board, including flight, for only £200, how would you react? Do you like the sound of it? Does it seem like an attractive holiday? Why are you not reaching for your cheque-book?
The holiday sounds attractive enough. You know that Crete is a lovely island from what your friends have told you and from what you have read in the holiday supplements of newspapers. June is a very good time to visit. To have a flight and hotel accomodation arranged makes it quite trouble free. The price is remarkably low. Why then do you hesitate? You think there may be something not quite right about the deal, is that correct?
In fact your reaction to the offer would be governed not only by the description of the holiday (ie the advertising), not only by what you knew of the place already (ie you already had a favorable impression of it – partly the result of earlier Product PR) but also by your own estimation of the value of what is being offered. It seems too cheap and therefore you are unhappy with it.
What has happened here is that you have accepted everything up to the point where you have found yourself doubting the honesty of the proposition. You do not believe that any commercial organisation would sell you something so good so cheaply. A rat has been smelled.
Suppose that the offer is being made by a close friend who has booked the holiday, paid the full price of, say, £600 and now cannot go because a job application has yielded an interview in the middle of the holiday week and the chance of this job just cannot be missed. The friend cannot cancel and claim on the insurance. He’ll settle for £100 and write off the loss against the chances of a bigger salary.
Now the honesty of the offer is not in question; it is now a believable good deal.
We see from this that an advertising message combined with Product PR is not enough. The person or organisation making the offer has to have credibility. It is Corporate PR that builds this. It is always more difficult for a new arts organisation to attract audiences; it has not, itself, yet established a reputation for high quality and good value. There are few quick fixes in Corporate PR. This is why, in the early stages of building a relationship with a community, the presenter will be wise to choose events that bring with them an aura of quality and value that the public will not question: it costs more money but the results will justify the outlay in the short term and in the long term as well because the success will help build the reputation of the organisation.
Over recent years I have started to visit the Donmar Theatre in Covent Garden, London. Its artistic director is Sam Mendes, a man whose reputation as a director of theatre and film has grown hugely in the past ten years. I have reached the point in my relationship with the Donmar where I assume that what I am going to see will be excellent. My concern now is more to do with when I can secure my tickets and where in the fairly small auditorium I am going to sit than with other people’s assessment of a play. I have joined a membership scheme to ensure that I am informed of what is scheduled as early as possible and I am at the door the day booking opens. I am pretty sure that I won’t be disappointed. There are obviously a lot of people who feel the way I do about the Donmar and Sam Mendes. The Corporate PR is simply splendid and it will continue this way until … something goes wrong. I hope it doesn’t.
The normal activities of Corporate PR would include encouraging the media to take a look at the people behind the scenes – especially the people who choose or create the events, the impresarios – and to convey information on future plans, future events, to their readers and viewers. The concept of Corporate PR would be behind the production of printed matter telling people not just about shows but about the organisation. The same would apply to visits backstage, the visits of organisation personnel to local bodies to give talks and so on.
If the vital role of Corporate PR is appreciated by the arts organisation it will show in every way in which the organisation meets the people, directly and indirectly. The appearance of buildings; the design, location and adequacy of signs within the building; the accessibility of the box-office; the helpfulness and professionalism of the staff; and so on and so on. Contact by telephone counts for much; how are people helped when they seek information? How long do they have to wait before their call is answered? The list is almost endless.
It is because good Corporate PR is the natural outcome of good management that its importance is sometimes taken for granted. It is true that if an organisation does its presenting job well people will think well of it and will trust it when it offers the holiday in Crete for £200 – but it will be held in even higher regard if it brings its light out from behind the bushel. Then, should trouble threaten – shows not quite so attractive or a threat to the funding – it will have goodwill to sustain it.
But a constant supply of first rate arts experiences will always be at the core of successful Corporate PR