Megaphone: A Guest Blog at Edinburgh Fringe by Chris Hislop

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We are privileged to welcome the multi-talented Chris Hislop who is promoting a number of shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Chris will be a “megaphone” at the Fringe (at, least that’s how he pitches himself to clients) and sharing his thoughts, experiences and reflections.

Visit Chris’s web site.

The 2017 blog begins here…

coming soon

The Blog from 2016

16/08 – The Kindness of Strangers and the Value of Friendship

As we sidle slowly past the halfway point of the fringe, it’s worth thinking a little about the interpersonal relationships that the fringe not only fosters, but frankly encourages. And no, I’m not talking about the late-night liaison that are almost as legendary as the festival itself – I’m justb talking about making friends.

Because the fringe is many things – arts festival, trade fair, an opportunity to see great theatre and comedy – but it’s also a great place to meet people. Not surprising really, when you consider the potpurri of theatre people that come to the festival, from performers through programmers and producers, all the way down to the lowly punter. It’s not fair to say that anyone who is anyone in theatre is in town right now – but there’s certainly a large enough contingent to argue for some kind of quorum.

However – it’s not like Edinburgh is some gigantic enforced networking event. It’s all far more convivial: the late night bars are perennially packed with people, the alcohol floweth freely (a bit too freely sometimes – the floors of certain establishments have reached peak stickiness already), and many an introduction gets made. But, amazingly enough, it never really falls into the territory of work conference, despite the fact that our various venue passes clearly double up as name badges – the tone is generally more that of a party amongst friends. Which makes it very easy to make new ones – and also meet artistic collaborators without the tiresomeness of an interview or similar.

But what about the people you already know? After just a few of these things you’ve built up quite the fringe bingo card – travelling around the George Square area I’m liable to bump into a lot of friendly faces – and that’s where this becomes a source of great joy to me. Because I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the fringe is so much better when it’s collaborative. There’s more that unites us than divides us. Friends up here are your bedrock – if not as events attendees themselves, then as sounding boards, confidants, advice givers; sources of hugs, drinks when the cash runs low, affection when that reviewer just didn’t get it, confidence boosts… It can be lonely up here, but you don’t have to be alone.

Of course, there are real rivalries too, and personal vendettas/hang-ups – especially in an industry as tempestuous (in so many ways…) as this. And the copious consumption can make things bubble to the fore – it’s unavoidable. The best thing to do is just walk away – there’s always another bar with a different group of friends. That may seem callous or cowardly – but I’m happy to don either epithet. More so perhaps than any other place in the world, the next group of like-minded people is close by; you needn’t suffer in silence.

So, we’re at the halfway point – how much time are you spending making new friends? It’s just as valuable as flyering – you heard it here first 🙂

15/08 – Holmes & Watson: The Farewell Tour: Interview with Holmes & Watson

I’ve promised it for ages – now here it is: the first of my clients on the blog, with more to follow soon. I’ve started with an interview with the great fictional characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, playing in Holmes & Watson: The Farewell Tour at the Space on the Mile from tonight!

Mr Holmes, Dr Watson – a great pleasure to be interviewing such notable figures! Do you find yourself inundated with fan mail?

H: An alarming amount my dear fellow, though as you no doubt are aware I have never been one to be concerned with fame and recognition.

W: Well I often find myself inundated with Holmes’s of course. I’m lucky if Mr’s Hudson remembers my name let alone a random person in the street, or indeed a ‘fan’.

Your Edinburgh show is a chance to revisit an unsolved case – a detective of your stature must have very few of those! What went wrong?

H: I had all the facts, but when I put them together they made no sense. However, once you eliminate the impossible whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth.

W: I’m not entirely sure you answered the question there Holmes. The truth is their are a few cases that have bested him over the years ( good luck to you if you dare mention ‘the woman’). This particular case however, is one of great mystery.

H: Still Watson, it is never too late to solve a case. Sometimes all you need do is approach it from a fresh perspective.

Why is the Edinburgh Fringe the best place to tell the world of one of your rare failures?

H: First of all my dear fellow you must not keep to referring to it as a failure, but rather a work in progress. Who knows, by time we reach Scotland perhaps I will have solved it all together.

W: Also people are often fond of a drink or two at The Fringe, so even if he hasn’t quite managed to solve it he can be safe in the knowledge that half of the audience won’t remember that when they wake up.

Dr Watson, you have been working with Mr Holmes for a very long time – you must have some lovely stories from the road. What are some of his more peculiar quirks?

W: Well addictions and vices aside the thing that always amazes me most is how is his mind never seems to stop. He’s always thinking, pondering, calculating – you really never quite know what’s going on beneath that Deer Stalker of his.

H: Sometimes Watson – Discretion is the better part of valour.

What’s next for the dynamic duo?

H: My good man, please try not to confuse us with those caped characters of comic book lore and fiction. We are Holmes and Watson and this our Farewell Tour. So in short – I will be retiring. To Sussex.

W: Well I’ve actually been considering pursuing a career as a Moustache model. There’s actually a large need for it, what with all of the gentleman’s hair and grooming salons popping up everywhere these days.

14/08 – Luck (An Aside)

I spent my childhood wanting to be Han Solo. I’ve always gravitated more towards the roguish outsider type than the fresh-faced hero, but there’s a moment in the original (good) Star Wars movie that captured something about him that I spent my entire childhood wanting.

About a third of the way into A New Hope, Luke manages to use the force to deflect some stun gun bolts (I know I know – look, if you aren’t a Star Wars fan or think this is all ludicrous, skip to the next paragraph). Han Solo decries it as luck, Obi-Wan says “there’s no such thing as luck”, to which Solo later retorts “There’s no mystical energy field controls my destiny!”

Now – and bear with me on this – I think he’s right. I don’t believe in fate, or destiny – I firmly believe that we plough our own furrow, make our own path, and it’s the conviction and energy we apply to that chosen path that makes it easier to traverse. And I think that’s a mindset prevalent in PR.

Because you have to believe you can change the world. You have to believe that you can change the status quo. That you can get your little play noticed where it would normally sink without a trace. That you can ALTER REALITY.

Too far? I really don’t think so. I think we have mythologised people’s ability to alter reality into making objects appear out of thin air and the like (fairy-tales, Marvel superheros, etc.), but that there is a certain mindset that actually allows a person to change the world around them to befit their plans and goal. And it stems from the basic belief that you can – that nothing is pre-ordained, that things don’t have to be the way they are, and that your strength of character and conviction is enough.

And I’m not saying it’s exclusively in PR that this attitude is prevalent – I’m pretty sure it’s widespread in a variety of fields where you set yourself against the world. I mean, it’s the kind of egomaniacal thinking that I’m sure led to the banking collapse of the mid-Noughties – this isn’t necessarily a wholly positive way of approaching things.

But it is a powerful one. Believing so strongly in your own ability to change the world means you get to watch it change around you – and that’s a wonderful feeling. Learning how to get what you want, mostly by finding a way of applying your will without terrifying people around you (seriously, watch Grant Morrison talk about sigil magic and slowly… back… away…), is exhilarating.

And – to me, at least – is a big part of PR. Publicity can be condensed down to press releases, mail outs, networking and so on, but the job is more than that – it’s about the public perception of the work. It’s about corralling opinion. The above are not the job – they are the tools you use to DO the job. They are your weapons – your battle is with reality itself.

Or not. I could be a madman swatting a clouds. I really don’t think so – but I also don’t think the power to change the world means you always need to be right. But that’s an etymological/epistemological argument for another time…

11/08 – The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

Utter failure – couldn’t even keep this blog updated. I’d love to say I don’t have this problem often, but I can’t deny that a certain lack of follow-through has dogged my life somewhat. It’s the age-old problem of “too many ideas, not enough time”. I could play the whole “I’m working on 12 fringe shows” card, but it’s not like I’m uniquely busy up here.

Edinburgh is full of busy people. Everyone rushes everywhere. I notice it in myself too – a slight increase in pace, pushing back when I leave somewhere to arrive as spot-on on-time as I can at the next destination, and a constant sense of being slightly… behind. Like you’ve forgotten something/someone. People talk about the “Edinburgh diet” – everyone loses weight at the fringe, mostly due to terrifyingly bad eating habits, but I reckon also because everyone traverses Edinburgh’s hilly inclines with an added weight to their step, a relentless pace powered by the echoing emails bouncing around their heads.

It’s my one piece of advice that I give to everyone at the festival and then studiously ignore myself year on year – don’t give yourself too much to do. Take it day by day. Try not to plan your schedule too relentlessly. It’s enticing to be able to go out and see lots of shows, but you won’t realise how much time you’re losing until you suddenly get struck by the thunderbolt of an email you forgot to answer, a job you forgot, a meeting you missed… or a blog you forgot to update.

Back now though – I still owe everyone some client updates, which I will now prioritise (I will, I WILL), and I still have some bon mot in me.

29/07 – Emails, Emails, Everywhere

Friends often seem to have this rosy-tinted view that most of my work time is spent in swanky bars and boutique coffee shops wining and dining theatre producers and journalists – and though that is partially true (I maintain a London private club membership just to impress people), I actually spend much, MUCH more time at home writing emails.

Yep, emails. Sure, I occasionally hit up reviewers on social media or give ’em a call as well, but you need to have strong email game to work in PR. When you’re contacting hundreds to thousands of people daily to get the word out about what clients are doing, the method that best balances the personal touch as well as wide proliferation is good, old-fashioned emailing.

And it’s my biggest piece of advice to anyone who wants to work in PR or promote their show themselves – GET GOOD AT EMAILS. And not in some amorphously defined way – specifics:

  1. Answer every email. Quickly. It’s so simple. Don’t say “I’ll handle it later” or put it off for too long. We carry around mobile devices that let us respond instantly – use the power that gives you. I take it as a point of personal pride that I get back to most emails within 5-10 minutes of receiving them – even if it’s just a short “I can’t answer that now, let me get back to you ASAP” – and most of the time, you can answer quickly enough. Show that you’re available, interested and engaged. Make everyone’s life easier by being quick and useful. Don’t let your inbox build up into a mountainous task that can’t be solved quickly.
  2. Develop a good email “voice”. We all have a tone of voice in real human interactions – yours has to translate into words on a screen. Find a way of writing that people can recognise and relate to – like a good author or journalist (eg. no one writes like A.A. Gill except him). Make it as engaging as if you were in the room.
  3. Develop good email vernacular. For example – sarcasm doesn’t work when written down, thanks to no one adopting the sarcastrophe (look it up – SUCH a good idea). Some people will write in emoticons and fragments, others in full sentences – like in good human interaction, mirror and adapt. You need to learn to be clear and concise – very few people are looking for essays. Don’t be afraid of sending a clarifying email if you reread your answer and it isn’t.
  4. Be relentlessly helpful and positive. Most emails are a request for information – have it at your fingertips AT ALL TIMES. I use Dropbox, which I can also access from my phone – so I always know what someone needs, even if I’m not even in the country at the point in time. Offer to make enquiries for them – make their lives easier.
  5. Email schedules have nothing to do with life schedules. Emails don’t work 9-5 – and different people send/receive emails better at different times. There are some decent rules of thumb, but the best thing to do is start working out when specific people respond to you quickly – and email them at those times. I keep a diary of these things – it’s just another weapon in your arsenal.
  6. And, of course, banging copy. You need to be a good copywriter. I spoke about “message” below, but it’s more than that. You need to write sexy, well-written, tightly grammared and SHORT copy to entice people in quickly. I’m gonna come back to this in a later piece because it’s so important, but for now – write well, it’s important.

Yes, it’s also important to maintain the swagger and wine and dine effectively – and there’ll be more on that later too – but most of your relationships will be with people you will occasionally meet at press nights, or have a coffee/drink with once in a blue moon, and spend most of your time emailing. Your relationship will probably be DEFINED by how well you communicate via email.

Anyway, that’s today’s morsel of insight – more to come soon, but I’ll be taking a break from exploding PR truth bombs (yeah, I’m not sure I can pull that off either) to introduce you to the clients I’m working with this year with articles/interviews/etc. over the next few days.

24/07 – “Message”

Publicists love to use the word “message” – “it’s about getting the message across”, “having a strong message”, etc. And it’s a nice, easy way to encapsulate what PR is also about – but also (and unfortunately), it has become another in the arsenal of publicity tools and concepts that confuse more than they explain.

So let’s break it down – what is a “message”? Because at it’s most basic level, PR is about telling people something. It’s about giving journalists something to write – and that “something” being, in most theatre PR cases, is your show. But just saying “this is my show” doesn’t get you very far.

Because your show is a variety of different things – it will have themes, concepts, plot, characters, etc. It will very rarely be simple to explain – nor will you always want to give away all of the information. The concept of the “spoiler” has become widespread – and it can affect an audience’s enjoyment of your show.

So, what do you give the journalist instead? They need, quite simply, a reason to talk about your show. What is it about your show that’s special or different? What will their readers want to read about? How does it relate to other big news stories? That reason, not the show itself, is the “message”.

It’s a shame that it’s a quote from a Bond villain, but at one point a villainous analogue for Rupert Murdoch points out that “the key to a great story is not who, or what, or when, but why”. That “why” is the easiest way to start uncovering your message – and is the most important thing to work out for your show. And it doesn’t even need to be clever or erudite – just clear.

In a successful PR campaign – that’s step one. If you can work out a clear message, everything else is a doddle. Yes, really – more to follow on that 😉


20/07 – What Kills A Skunk…

“What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself” – that bon mot from Abraham Lincoln, of all people, is possibly one of my favourite quotes about publicity. After years of theatre work across a variety of disciplines (Paul is kind to call me multi-talented – peripatetic is probably more apt), it’s the area I’ve found myself in, and where my inability to know when to stop talking is a particularly prized resource.

Because that’s what everyone thinks about PR – right? It’s not the most well-respected and admired of positions – one up from “lawyer” in the job sweepstakes, most often greeted in pubs and at parties with a raised eyebrow and an “oh right – what does that actually mean?” And it’s not difficult to see why – it’s often couched in a lot of bullsh*t mysticism, sometimes referred to as the “dark arts” or with someone like me referred to as a “guru”. Ironically enough, PR has a PR problem.

That’s what PR is – publicity. How people see you, or a particular project. “Sculpting the message” might be the kind of thing you’d hear at a conference or in a god-awful job description online. I often go with a simpler explanation – I’m a megaphone. Tell me what you want to tell as many journalists as possible (and, hopefully, their audiences as well) – and I get it out there. That’s the job. And that’s what we should be telling people.

But it isn’t – freelancer job boards are full of people promising to “accelerate exposure” and “facilitate engagement”. You can buy reams of Twitter followers and Facebook follow/comment/pokes. What’s killing PR is the publicity it gives itself – an inflated sense that there’s a mystical answer to getting more people to buy your ice-cream, drink your beer or attend your show.

Really, there isn’t. It’s actually very practical. And I’ll be using this guest blog to try and demystify this process a bit. There’s really no smoke and mirrors – I’m not a parlour magician. Most of it is being approachable, writing good words in the right order, and being honest and direct with people. I’m not saying that it’s easy – but you don’t have to be a skunk about it.

So, keep reading for information about the clients I’m working with – including their PR highs and lows – and some insight into theatre PR at the Fringe, from my own condescending and opinionated position. I’ll try to keep this updated with a post every couple of days.