Don’t let this go to print
You’ve been working hard on your troupe, your theatre, your festival. You’ve been waiting for that chance to get some good coverage in the local press. The moment finally comes. You go down to your nearest 7-11 to pick up a copy and it’s… terrible. It’s a tiny article that takes several minutes to find. It has all the wrong info. It totally misrepresents what you’re all about. How can this be? The simple truth is this. You talk to your friends about improv. You surround yourself with people who get it. But the press in many cities simply doesn’t have the context for what you’re doing (Microsot Word still doesn’t even recognize the word), and to expect a Pulitzer winning article on your show isn’t going to happen without some effort on your part.
Here are seven tips to prepare and enable good press coverage. I’ll speak in terms of newspapers, but the same things apply for radio, television and web coverage. And I’m sorry to say it, but doing everything in this post will still lead to a crummy article or two. But keep at it. Continue to educate your press and the public in your town about what improv is and the quality of your coverage will blossom.
Sooner or later you’re going to get a phone call or an email out of the blue from the local news. You didn’t send out a press release. You don’t have any big shows coming up. The call kind of catches you off guard. It can be a great opportunity, but you need to be prepared to politely say no thank you. This sounds almost blasphemous and its very difficult to do. But it sometimes will lead to much larger long term results.
It’s easy to get an ego boost from the contact, but step back for context for a moment. Unless you have a pretty good reputation in your city already, this reporter knows nothing about you and probably has some not quite accurate ideas on what improvisation is. There’s no news story to be had. You’ve been assigned as (cue dramatic music) a filler piece. Improv has been prime filler piece material for years. Improv articles appear in regular rotation right between “Biff! Pow! Comic Books Not Just For Kids Anymore” and “Grandma’s on Facebook Now. ‘Like’ It Or Not”.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a filler piece. They can potentially bring people to your show. Keep in mind that the filler piece doesn’t go to the star reporter, it goes to the cub reporter out on their first or second article. They’re looking to get something in by their deadline. They likely have a set of preconceived notions and they are basically looking to put a couple of dates and a soundbite into the Mad Libs they inherited from the last cub reporter before they even call you.
Don’t believe me? Let’s play newspaper Bingo with the last improv article you saw. How many of these can you spot?
If you didn’t think Sarah Palin, a dinosaur and Gangnum Style were funny, you clearly haven’t been down to see the folks at ComedyHut.
If you’ve only seen Whose Line, you only seen the half of it.
You’re on a quest for buried treasure. Suddenly a robot pops up. Or a zombie. Think Fast! That’s exactly what the quick-witted folks down at Bucket-O-Yuks do every week.
We’re always ‘folks’ by the way. When you get asked. Thank the reporter very much for their interest and invite them to come see a show. Seeing a show and being in your space can illuminate what you’re about far better than two minutes on the phone can. Suggest that you don’t feel answering a few quick questions will accurately portray what you are.
If they agree. Great! Comp them. Come down and say hello. Let them see what your all about. If they aren’t willing to come down to the theatre, respectfully decline the article and wish them good luck.
But… Isn’t all publicity good publicity? Who cares if the article’s a little stale if it gets people in the door right? Sadly no. No ill intent is in those lazy articles, but they paint a picture of improv that further builds up the stereotypes and misconceptions about the craft and reinforces the reasons people use as excuses “not” to see improv. Of course you will get a few people to come to your show. Those people are expecting to see what the article made you out to be, and they’re going to be disappointed and disillusioned. They won’t come back. They’ll leave bad Yelp reviews. They’ll encourage their friends not to return.
When you get the offer for an article. It’s tempting to jump at anything, but be prepared to say no.
Send them. Send them in a timely manner and send them properly.
In the age of the internet, press outlets received hundreds of press releases every day. Many of them get thrown out because they aren’t speaking the same language that people are prepared to read them. A press release is a specific type of document with its own formatting rules. They aren’t complicated, but they should be followed if you want traction. There are many guides out there on the simple formatting layout of a press release. Learn it.
Be specific. You have shows every week. Why should you get coverage today? Post specific stories, show openings, special guests, theatre milestones. Something to actually write about.
Give lead time. Don’t send a press release on Thursday for a Friday show. Three weeks notice is good for daily journals. Three months is good lead time for quarterly or monthly journals.
Be regular. Your first press releases will get overlooked, but if they’re formatted well and respectful, your name will start becoming familiar. There’s a difference between regular and annoying. Don’t send something every day. But post regularly. If you’re a festival, this is especially true. Post schedule announcements, venue, show times, all that jazz.
Articles are great. Reviews are amazing. Press will always push back on this idea. “How can I review a show that won;’t be the same next week?” Well that’s poppycock. Do you know what you’re in for if you go see T.J & Dave or Baby Wants Candy? Of course you do. You know the level of quality you’re going to get. If you have ongoing shows or troupes, invite a review. More people are going to respond to a positive review than the vague promise of something good that may happen.
Quality Press Kit
If a quality article is underway, you’ll be asked for media. Typically photos and logos. Have these available rather than having to scrounge for them. Have them high resolution. If it’s a logo have it in vector format if possible (.AI or .EPS files are more press friendly). Just as importantly have a press kit that’s up to date and has what you want to say in it. Spend time writing out a short bio (one paragraph) and a longer bio (three to five paragraphs) that says exactly what you want it to say. Quotes might be pulled from this, so it’s wise to have it reflect what you actually believe.
You’ll be surprised what I choose to quote.
A common thing in many bad articles is bad quotes. Not inaccurate quotes, just bad ones. Remember that you think you’ve said something golden on the phone, but you said a lot of other things as well. All of them are fair game. It’s completely fine to pause before answering a question.
Talk about what you are, not what you aren’t. Sometimes you’re specifically asked about comparisons to other things. Whose Line is an especially common go-to. It’s fine to answer these questions and pointing out the differences, but don’t put your own ideas out in that way. It’s the same thing you learn on stage. Talk about the here and now, not what isn’t happening. Talk about who you are and what you believe. Talking about TV shows that aren’t you only spend valuable time talking about what you aren’t. And.. well.. people like Whose Line because it’s fun. People like stand up because it’s fun. Drawing distinctions paints you as not fun.
Talk about who you are.
Share the Love
Do some quick algebra with me. How many people live in your city? Let’s call that a. Now what is the total number of seats in every improv venue in town? Let’s call that b. Is a greater than b? If so, then why are you worried about “competition”. There are thousands of people out there who don’t know about improv yet. If they can’t make your show, but might be able to see the show down the street. GREAT! More people who can appreciate improv. Different theatres have different philosophies, but if the other venues in town are fighting the good fight, share the love. They aren’t the enemy. The enemy is ignorance. So don’t be afraid to raise awareness for all good improv in your town.
Be Part of Your Community
All of the above might lead to a single great article. But they won’t lead to anything beyond that. One thing I muttered at improv spaces across the country is that no one comes out and supports the arts in their local community. If you’ve ever said that, then I’m putting you on the spot right now. When was the last time you went out to a jazz show, or a stand up set, or an art exhibit? Be part of the solution. Does your city have First Fridays? TEDx? Ignite? Does your University have public lectures? Does your neighborhood have a small business council? Does your local government meet with local business? Go to these things. Support your local community. Tweet about them. Use your theatre to support them in any way you can. “But I have shows every weekend” is not an excuse. There are ways to get out there.
Your theatre is not an island. You’re part of the fabric of your city and your culture. If you close off to that, it will close off to you. If you embrace that and participating then people will know about you and the press will know about you and be happy to celebrate your milestones with you because you are part of the city’s pride.
Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.