You might have missed the kerfuffle recently between the highly respected theatre critic, Lyn Gardner and Cirque Du Soleil. There was much debate about the Circus taking steps to stop the critic reviewing their new production. Evidently Ms Gardner found out she was uninvited from a press night. She had been approved to review the London outing of Ovo, at the Royal Albert Hall, pre-Christmas. However, when “the admin” arrived in town she was told she was no longer welcome. The precious circus commercial juggernaut was clearly still miffed by her one-star review for last year’s Amaluna. With the new show selling out regardless, who needs an irritating review to fade the glamour of the box office glow?
We live in the brave new world of entertainment PR power. Neil Norman coined the phrase “PR scum are human too” some years back to underline that “the flack” often held the shitty end of the stick. The humble publicist was an irritant who got in the way of a great story. He/she was treated with distain.
To be clear, after the first show Cirque has never enjoyed unfettered praise. But back in the day when I launched Cirque du Soleil with my team, we just ensured the hype made the show critic proof and so it has continued.
Twenty years on the power of social means the fans of brands like Cirque are more important than a critic who might not understand that the provision of press seat demands 5 star acclaim. The fans caught in a bubble froth can drum up enough excitement to sell out auditoria so the need for glowing reviews are fading. Gone are the days when the review made the news. Today the entertainment behemoth, owned by an American private equity firm TPG Capital and China’s Fosun are there to deliver share holder return – oh and put on a great show. Sure it remains the unique show I launched 20 years ago, it’s just no longer desperate for media ink.
Frustration over what’s happened to the rules of engagement between the media and PR’s is understandable. Once upon a time, entertainment journalists regularly shafted the poor PR pixie. Often an outlet looking to increase circulation, cut down your star because an Editor felt the sell by date had passed. As the power of social media erodes a traditional media the unspoken understanding between PR’s and the press has been unceremoniously dumped. True there was a handful of publicists, very professional, very well-organised, who had the skill to manage the rough and tumble of the mutually beneficial and rewarding relationship that existed between publicity agents and the press. But on many occasions the unfortunates experienced the cruel whim of the media.
There is a new entertainment PR culture, sick of toeing the line, expecting copy approval and total control over the process of interviews and features. The relationship was originally jeopardised by weak publicists, conditioned by aggressive tactics which has established organisations with greater power to rewrite the rules of engagement.
As some PRs try to keep the Fourth Estate it its place, and herald a brave new era of fearless media manipulation, will we ever see a bad review written again? As the old world order reinvents how they bring down a creative endeavour, will publicists try and starve the old media of information? It might be useful to reflect if this is to change, the PR world must be given a bloody nose. This is truly unlikely when the click bait friendly collateral remains in the hands of a few PR shops. Ask any US journalist what it’s like to be on the Blacklist of the top Hollywood spin masters. It’s a cold and lonely place. When the next exclusive celebrity story comes along, will the press turn it down because they were not given access to review a show or a movie, I really don’t think so. The truth – whisper it – is content and celebrities are the stuff to drive sales.. The flak with the power and the best story wins so isolating those that seek absolute power is a difficult to achieve in the age of single channel social media superstars.