WROTE A LITTLE Last week about the necessity of using media to create buzz around an act of performer because it benefits the bottom line for a show. Wanted to look at bit more at the theoretical role of a Press Agent in 2010.
ON 21st CENTURY PRESS AGENTS
Any media, publicity, press agent strategy employed by any Circus must focus on both long term and short terms efforts; at local, regional, and national markets; leveraging a variety of media outlets both old and new including print, glossy print (magazines,) broadcast (television and radio,) and internet. To date Internet “new media” has failed to fill a circus tent or arena, but Internet resources can’t be overlooked. Fortunately in 2010 virtually everything a press agent or spokesperson or publicist needs to create copy, handle mailings, phone and fax can fit into a suitcase, so a press department consumes little in the way of space resources.
It’s a simple fact that “The Circus Comes To Town,” ceased to be much a news story fifty years ago. The traditional circus press agent, whether working ahead of the show glad-handing reporters, giving out passes, and planting stories – or working on the show itself to insure that “the press” paints the circus in colors that morph into box office green ended in the 1950’s with the advent of broadcast television as the primary source for “news.” Successful media operations in recent decades seek to create and place stories with specific angles tailored to niche audiences. Does the circus have a local connection? If the circus lacks a local connection, how can one be framed? What circus acts appeal to specific target groups? Can the circus sell “gymnastics,” in a town with a circus arts school or a college gymnastics program? Can the circus sell “horses” in a community with a large equestrian center? What’s the story the circus is pitching to animal lovers? Is there a positive political story in the circus, where foreign workers are employed legally through a temporary visa system embraced by both the left and right? What “human interest” stories can the circus pitch? What stories allow the circus to sell tickets to people of faith? What are the demographics of a particular community or region and what stories are of interest to those demographics?
Or, “Let me tell you a stray dog story…”
The point is, there are a hundred stories that every circus has to tell – but circus can’t count on journalists to find those stories without help. And the more stories they find or are spoon fed in the days and weeks before the circus comes to town, the more successful the publicity effort. Any circus that can’t serve up at least two dozen such stories as easily rewritten press releases in a media kit hasn’t given much thought to the job of a press agent. Any publicist who isn’t writing new material or revising and updating old material daily is failing. As old time editors told us when we were journalism students, “Don’t bury the lead.” First comes the media kit, then faxes, and finally working the phones. In large markets with multiple day stands, or a series of stands in a geographically self-contained area – creating “media events” should a routine aspect of the job of the press agent.
How do circus stories break down?
THE CIRCUS IS HISTORY.
The circus is 200 years of American history. (Or British history, or French history, or Australian history for that matter.)
The circus can always mine a rich vein of history, peddling nostalgia. The circus was America’s first hugely popular mass entertainment. Our original pop culture icons are associated with the circus – whether Barnum, or Dan Rice, or Isaac Amberg. Our very lexicon is filled with circus terms. The circus has given us films as enduring as Dumbo, and The Greatest Show on Earth. Seventy-five years after the end of the Golden Age of circus when stars like Clyde Beatty who were household names, the bestsellers list still offers up novels like Water For Elephants recreating that age.
Let’s look at Kelly Miller. From Day One doubtlessly John Ringling North II has recognized that the Ringling North history and its association with the story of traditional circus in America plays a role in marketing/publicity efforts of the Kelly Miller Circus. “History” is the key to using Ringling North without muddying the waters of Feld Entertainment’s “Ringling” brand. Cherry picking that history can allow for the creation of media materials telling a story that begins in McGregor, Iowa, includes Yankee Robinson – briefly the greatest circus man of the post Civil War period -- utilizes photographs of a family of rather well known “brothers” and fleshes out the story of Ida North, their somewhat less well known sister and her amazingly successful sons John and Henry. KM can use that timeline and storyline because it’s John Ringling North’s story and he’s allowed to tell it – in interviews and elsewhere. Is there a risk that Feld Entertainment will object? So long as Kelly Miller is mindful of parsing history carefully, most objections would be little more than bluster even from a litigious organization.
And controversy and litigation aren’t always a bad thing anyway. Again, let’s look at Mr. North. There’s a bit of precedent when it comes to the use of a personal name in branding or brand infringement. In the 1960’s the Taylor Wine Company of Hammondsport, NY was a strong regional and national brand, producers of a variety of popular vintages blended from New York State grapes and California “tank” wines. Taylor competed well against E&J Gallo and other national brands in many markets. Coca-Cola acquired Taylor from the founding family in the late 1960’s, planted extensive vineyards on the west coast and added Taylor California Cellars to its existing product line. Meanwhile back in Hammondsport, former Taylor VP Walter S. Taylor, an outspoken critic of his family’s winemaking methods, opened the Bully Hill Winery, the first truly successful east coast “estate winery.” There was no mention of “Taylor” on Bully Hill labels, except for Walter’s signature. Coca-Cola filed a trademark infringement suit against Walter Taylor and a judge in Rochester, NY found for Coke. Thus began a brilliant media and marketing campaign waged by Walter Taylor, who claimed in countless press releases that Coke had stolen his name and tried to steal his history. His name couldn’t be stripped from news stories or Bully Hill trucks and properties, and the name continued to appear on Bully Hill bottles, with “Taylor” intentionally blacked out. Soon every bottle of Bully Hill featured the phrase “They got my name, but not my goat.” Bully Hill thrived, producing pretty good wines. The first NASA space shuttle flight carried a bottle of Bully Hill. Eventually the courts found for Walter S. Taylor, and by then Coca-Cola was tired of playing the “heavy” in a story with “legs.” Coke’s wine business failed, and today Taylor is a minor brand of boxed wines. Walter died in a car accident, but Bully Hill continues, and their labels with his original artwork and signature sell a lot of wine.
The point is that Walter Taylor never sought to compete directly with Coke’s “Taylor” brand, but he rightly viewed his own lineage and history as an asset that couldn’t be wholly acquired by Coke. For JRN II and the Kelly Miller Circus, treading softly around the historical “Ringlings” or “Norths” is different than never uttering the name.
THE CIRCUS IS AS CONTEMPORARY AND EXCITING AS TODAY.
Any publicity/ press agent effort selling circus season after season as a fresh edition of a stand-alone product has to focus on allure of specific acts, the appeal of circus to families, and the “wow” factor. Not every season comes with “wow” automatically attached. But looking for “wow,” building “wow,” and nurturing “wow” -- with the ballyhoo has always been among the single most important aspects of the role of the press agent – is how circus reminds each new audience that what happens under the bigtop is always contemporary. Seventy years ago the Greatest Show on Earth ™ transformed tented circus with color and stagecraft and the best acts in the world. Circus was and is the most accessible of the performing arts… a notion not lost on shows like Big Apple. Circus is subversive in that respect. The same family that would not buy tickets for the theater, for opera, for ballet will joyfully attend a circus performance that includes theatric structures from of each. The classics are new again with each performance. Aristotle writing 2500 years ago On Poetics defined the elements of drama…plot, theme, character, language, music, and spectacle… the stuff of circus. Any circus “critic” who fails to see a peanut pitch, as pure theater never studied Plato. What’s the story we tell years after year? The circus is old, but beneath the bigtop it’s fresh, and it’s all new again for each generation of children, young or merely young at heart. In telling that story, in selling that notion, staying on “message” is everything. Coining and repeating phrases, whether “America’s Favorite Small Town Show,” or “Family Fun For Less Than The Price Of A Movie,” or “The American Circus Is Back!” is the stuff of buzz. Say it enough times and it becomes fact. Buzz can sell tickets, but isn’t often a “story,” just a piece of a story. Any given season it’s the job of a press agent to find and develop and pitch stories. Unfortunately in recent decades mudshow circuses have rarely employed the kinds of writers who can create exciting advance materials, the production values in the packaging of press materials to make a show look good, or a true understanding of how media outlets constitute a market separate from the broader circus-going audience.
In 2010 and beyond press agents must always narrowcast the circus message to target specific media. How does the circus place a series of stories with daily newspapers in an era when daily papers are barely afloat? How does the circus leverage a weekly paper in a mid-sized city if a weekly requires significant lead-in time? (While news stories appearing a day or a week AFTER a show leaves town may be fine for the scrapbook, they don’t fill seats.) How can a regional magazine be used to promote circus? What if any value is to be had in radio? Can the circus exploit local broadcast television? What national media can be utilized in branding? Newspapers, magazines, and broadcast television are all cash poor, does that make them ripe for stories that require less work and fewer human resources?
Daily papers grow thinner every week. In some cities last year’s newsroom with two-dozen reporters is this year’s newsroom with fewer than twelve. On the bright side, for circus, that makes dailies a natural target for stories containing local color or a local connection that can be easily rewritten from press materials. Any town with a daily paper should be receiving several press kits addressed to local editor and to local columnists. In addition to news releases (pre-packaged stories,) photos, and contact information, every kit should include a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM with an electronic copy of itself. Additionally there should be a ubiquitous daily fax to daily papers beginning ten days before the show arrives. That said, everybody uses the fax, and fax alone is simply enough.
(Worth mentioning… Finding a local angle for circus stories is pretty easy if a press agent mines the past. A show playing in or near Canton, Pennsylvania might play on Canton’s connection to the almost forgotten Charles Lee Circus that once was headquartered there. Another town might have been the scene of a circus train derailment, or an elephant stampede. Circus employees have roots in towns or regions, and historic circus figures, again, many nearly forgotten, hailed from across small-town America. Larger communities are all rich both in history and contemporary connections to circus. Give a paper a story with a local angle and they will virtually always run that story.)
Weekly papers. In very small towns the weekly paper is the paper. Weeklies in small towns are still pretty good about running a general interest circus story-- or several -- in the weeks before the show. The best way to get a front page picture in a small town weekly ahead of the show is still by employing an Advance Clown traveling 10-14 days ahead of the show and visiting libraries, schools, and day camps in the company of the local sponsor. If the weekly paper knows about the visit, they will cover it. A clown surrounded by kids gets the front page. Absent an advance clown giving a small weekly a selection of good photographs along with a strong localized press release, and a chance to “interview” a press agent or spokesperson over the phone is beneficial. In small towns sponsors should be encouraged to provide the names of the most widely read local papers – especially the village weekly.
Weekly papers in mid-sized markets.
In many mid-sized and larger markets weekly papers are the bastions of in-depth reportage for a generation of journalists weaned on the Village Voice. Generally circuses have not used these papers well. Weeklies of this type require significant lead-in time, and frankly some shows are fearful of “investigative” journalism. In ignoring such weeklies circus may be missing out on significant promotional opportunity. Inviting a writer to visit and travel with the circus for a couple days a month or more before the shows play in a particular market could mean a feature story and a cover. By keeping a reporter on the show for several days it’s easier to “manage” the story they ultimately write and to present positives far outweighing any negatives arising over animal rights. Of course it requires an empty bunk – since any invitation includes housing and feeding a writer. Lead-time is everything. In early June the circus would be pitching a story to weeklies in areas the show will play in mid-July or later, and by July pitching to papers in places the show will play in late August or September. One positive feature and a sidebar story in a good weekly are akin to thousands of dollars in ad buys.
Regional Magazines. Regional glossy publications offer a circus a chance to pitch to a friendly audience in an area where the show plays years after year. Print magazines require very long lead-in times, but regional magazines are also read and reread. For example, a writer in 2010 from Adirondack Life Magazine might visit the circus in late June for a story that finally appears in February. But the following June, magazine readers will still recall the story, or may continue to find it while sitting in the Dentist’s office. By constantly pitching to regional magazines over several seasons a press agent should be able to place stories across the length and breadth of a show’s nominal “route” with enough frequency to build significant “brand” recognition.
National Magazines. A quality mid-sized circus should be able to place 1-3 stories a year with national magazines. Again, lead-in times are significant. A 2010 story may not see print or pay-off until 2011, but the impact is very real. Too often obvious magazines are overlooked. A tiger trainer may not grace the pages of NEWSWEEK, but a good story about that trainer with both his/her tigers and house cats in Cat Fancy sells circus tickets. Likewise a circus owner or manager might be a natural fit for AARP Magazine, which likes to run features on interesting, energetic subjects over the age of 55. And circus lends itself well to national magazines with niche business readers. Over several seasons articles in lesser national magazines leads to articles in other better known national publications. Coverage builds on prior coverage publicity feeds on publicity. NEWSWEEK Magazine eventually gets around to the tiger trainer, but only after other publications build the buzz.
Most Americans still get their news from television. But television is a fickle mistress for traditional circus. A segment on the evening news the day of a show is too little too late to fill seats. Controversial stories on animal rights issues sometimes run on local television before a circus comes to town, but clearly they aren’t the stories a circus wants to tell. Two opportunities generally exist for circus to utilize local broadcast television, morning shows and media events. Morning shows, where they exist frequently require the circus to deliver performers to a station’s studio early in the morning on the day of the show. This sometimes means leaving yesterday’s town before the rest of the circus is ready to jump. A charismatic performer with a command of English and a skill that can be demonstrated in 30 seconds works best for the local morning show cut-away format. (Or Spanish language skills for a Spanish language station.) Occasionally the small market morning show will elect to do a live feed from the circus itself. Logistically such remotes can be managed when the circus is making very early, very short jumps, or is settled in for a two-day stand. In larger markets where the circus may be playing several dates in nearby suburban communities morning shows with longer local programming segments offers the circus a chance to pitch a wider variety of acts and interviews, a chance to watch the tent go up, etc. Large markets are also well suited to “media events” staged for several broadcasters. Media events are frequently built around animal acts. Lunch with the elephants, or an elephant watermelon feed, etc. (Doesn’t have to be elephants, any charismatic animal will work.) In an area like Boston or Chicago where a circus may spend weeks in various suburbs a media event can be particularly effective. In pitching to broadcast television a specialized press kit with broadcast quality video on DVD is an absolute must.
National broadcast media. Pitching a circus story to the national broadcast media almost always requires retaining the services of an outside agency. Outside agencies are staffed with former bookers and producers with ties to syndicated and in-house network shows. Otherwise, most circuses not playing long engagements in major cities must wait for national broadcasters to come to them. Employing an outside agency can be expensive, but it does increase the public profile of a performer or a show. To date, to the best of my knowledge legitimate traditional circuses have spurned offers from “reality television” production companies.
Worth noting again. Controversy isn’t always bad. Animal rights advocates sometimes boast that they are shameless media whores. They know that enough a flawed, dishonest message gets attention. No show should ever shy away from debating activists on radio or on television. So long as the debater on the circus side is well spoken and not given to merely stating that they never saw anything amiss when sitting in the backyard with Gunther, a debate will benefit show receipts. It’s message, it’s branding, it’s profiting off anti-activist backlash.
Radio. Interviews on local drive time radio programs remain a popular way to promote circus. More often than not, stations or station groups where a show or sponsor has made an ad buy are best for radio promotions and publicity because an interview whether the day of the show or a few days ahead of the show are reinforcing ad spots. Booking on-air radio is usually handled by a home office, or a p/t individual who makes calls and call backs to radio stations several weeks in advance of the circus. Radio interviews can usually be handled over the phone and the show spokesperson (press agent) or ringmaster generally takes or makes the actual call at the time of the interview. Because radio is normally tied to ad buys, its best utilized in small and mid-sized markets where radio is very affordable.
New Media. New Media in the form of a vast array of Internet offerings is both a blessing and a challenge for circus. Circus blogs are popular, but most are read by circus fans or circus insiders and do little to drive box office traffic. Video on You Tube, Facebook pages, fan groups, and Twitter are popular, but few web efforts have successfully raised the public profile or a circus. No new circus “stars” have been created via viral marketing. Most circuses have web pages, but the vast majority of those web pages are poorly designed or amateurish by today’s standards. Too often circuses have seen the web, a web site, and a few online resources as a way to cut costs associated with mounting advance efforts or publicity. A web site is not a press kit. And a post card pointing to online press kits lacks the impact of a well-packaged mailing. That’s not to say that a circus shouldn’t have a good web site – it’s a must – or an electronic press kit – or advance materials for sponsors online, but at present these efforts should augment and not replace other efforts. Thee online world is a great place to sell branded souvenirs…hats, tee shirts, mugs, videos, and a website is not a bad place to sell advance tickets. (A well-designed web site more than pays for itself hawking merchandise.) But it’s only a place to court media attention to the extent that a press agent can point journalists to a web resource. Circus can’t expect media to find those resources strictly on their own, or to get the whole story from an online resource.
Finally, press agent/publicity efforts and campaigns cost money; wages, printing and mailing expenses, phone and fax bills, annual video and audio production costs. Too often in recent decades smaller shows have seen these efforts as intangibles and an easy way to reduce the “nut.” Ironically larger organizations have learned to use “media relations” more and more effectively as lesser shows have forgotten why they once employed press departments. Metrics must exist in any press effort to make the intangible tangible again. How does a media effort contribute to existing revenue streams? In a given market where a show receives little or no publicity and significant publicity another season, were ticket sales up? Other factors must be examined before a verdict on media efforts can be made…who was the sponsor each year? …How was the local economy from one season to the next? …Where was the lot? But when all things are equal an increase in ticket sales can likely be attributed to the press agent and media/branding efforts. Without clearly defined metrics management can never know the value of publicity efforts.