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Throughout the pandemic, PR teams have had to consistently adjust to changing government guidelines in order to best do their jobs. Matt Barton reports on the experiences of various theatre PRs, in the form of a press release. 

Press release: [5.03.21]

A Younger Theatre today announces the world premiere of The Coalface of Crisis Comms, a new feature written by Matt Barton.

While most theatre staff have been furloughed during the closures, theatres have largely kept at least one member of their PR team working, sustaining the relay between the organisation and public. I heard from four PRs about being at the forefront of communicating the experience of  funding deficits, redundancies and the struggle to produce work — even if they’ve not been in the foreground themselves.

Susie Gray, The Corner Shop PR, said: “Lockdown has been challenging. You have to bring a different creativity: you’re not going through the motions, but thinking about every step. Without sounding too positive, that’s quite refreshing and we’ve enjoyed the creative collaborations it’s demanded.”

PR staff have depended on their innate reactivity and proactivity to embolden the agility necessary for reporting on this state of flux, overcoming the challenge of serving organisations, artists and audiences in an ever-shifting landscape.

Chloé Nelkin, Chloé Nelkin Consulting said: “We’ve had to ensure we have a sensitivity and understanding of the news cycle because there are days when the news is so dismal, that’s occupying people’s consciousness.”

Susie Gray said: “One of the things PR is is horizon-scanning: you’re always keeping an eye out for what’s moving or changing. It may be slap-you-in-the-face size of Covid-19, but it’s part of your role to keep an eye on all that.”

Shelly Ramsdale, Oldham Coliseum, said: “You never know what’s going to happen, so there’s a lot of quick reaction. We’re now all experts in crisis comms. There’s always been the possibility something out of the blue could happen, but I think we’re used to it happening now. Maybe we’re just desensitised.”

Their adaptability has helped fortify them against this destabilising uncertainty, steadily navigating new parameters to cut through with the right messaging for promoting work and garnering support — all while resisting the disarming pressure and threat of industry collapse.

Chloé Nelkin said: “That threat and fear was real, and sadly still is. I still feel we’re on the edge of a precipice, but what’s incredible is the resilience of the industry and how it’s fought through. I think it’s that fighting power that makes the arts community special, and hopefully dispels that fear slightly.”

Susie Gray said: “It’s a well-stated concern, but at the same time everybody feels very resilient — they’re very creative, determined people who’ve had to fight to get where they are. I felt a huge amount of energy from the people we work with to survive, look forward, find ways to deliver and not let vulnerable communities down. No-one was taking it lying down.”

Shelly Ramsdale said: “The fear is for the people who’ve fallen through the cracks. Theatre will rebuild, but who will be there to do it? There’s a lot of support for theatre, it’s just getting through.”

Supporting them through is the strength and camaraderie of the PR community. Shelly, for example, is part of a Greater Manchester theatre PR group who now hold their regular catch-ups virtually. This all embodies a collective social responsibility which has seen greater recognition throughout the industry.

Chloé Nelkin said: “You have to put down that idea of being competitors and realise you’re working in the same industry and need to support each other. I hope that collaborative spirit continues; there’s no reason why we can’t talk to each other and be friends just because we’re doing the same thing.”

Shelly Ramsdale said: “As an industry, we’re suffering greatly since we can’t function as we historically always have. We’ve focused on communicating what we want to do to help people, not ‘we’re in trouble’, although everyone’s in trouble. People understanding that’s what theatres do as well as put on shows is brilliant.”

Laura Horton, Plymouth Laureate of Words, said: “I’ve spoken a lot more to PRs and we’ve checked in on each other, so there’s a lot of care and support there — people want to see the other person through the storm.”

This urge to unite and protect has manifested in press releases becoming less muted, with industry figures more resolutely pursuing lobbying and activism. As covert criticism has become overt opposition, PR has leant further into propaganda, with passion and outrage burning through from subtext to surface.

Laura Horton said: “I’m not going to give up on my campaign [Theatre Stories]. There are huge problems in this industry and they’ve been highlighted. You have to hope it becomes a leveller, and in some ways the pandemic’s opened things up. Theatre Stories is providing provocations and questions, so it feels more political.”

Chloé Nelkin said: “Anything that’s happened over the past year is in some way designed to galvanise the industry and fight. It’s about bringing people together and reminding them of the importance of the arts and the fighting spirit keeping them alive. People are fearless and just want to get work on the stages, but also they’ve had their confidence knocked multiple times now, so they’re really demoralised. People have been really dented by the constant changes.”

Their value has been reemphasised and the community has tightened, but they’re looking ahead with cautious optimism. They’re hopeful of change and recovery but lack the concrete governmental support and backing to facilitate it.

Susie Gray said: “One of the things that’s kept me going is having a brilliant team who are really capable. There’s lots of hope, but it’s tinged with worry about people financially making it through. If we could know what the timeline of this is, that’d be amazingly helpful.”

Chloé Nelkin said: “It comes down to bravery. I have the utmost respect for our clients who’ve fought on and done something. I wish I knew when it’d all be over, but doesn’t everybody?”