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HomeProfilesCelebrities, language barriers and the ‘Chunder-tron’: arts PR with Sophie Gardner

Celebrities, language barriers and the ‘Chunder-tron’: arts PR with Sophie Gardner

Cabaret Festival marketing/publicity team 2017

Sophie Gardner is a part-time publicity executive at the Adelaide Festival Centre and part of a team of four who publicise the AFC’s annual program of dance, music, theatre, musicals, visual arts, Something on Saturday and much more. The team also looks after publicity for the four festivals – Adelaide Cabaret Festival and OzAsia Festival (both annual) and DreamBig and Adelaide Guitar Festival (both bi-annual). “So OzAsia is my current main focus: 11th year this year and running from 21st Sept – 8th Oct. There’s the plug!” Sophie says.

What’s a typical “day in the job” for you?
Like many, it generally starts and ends with emails! A lot of them are in relation to teeing up media interviews and photos for artists, and for OzAsia there’s another layer because a lot of our artists are still overseas, and may not speak English as a first language. Because there are a lot of different components to OzAsia (such as the film program, Open State, and the Lucky Dumpling Market), these areas have their own publicists and so I also keep in regular contact with everyone. There’s a fair amount of media release writing involved too, and of course ensuring that everything is written in time to be signed off and approved by all necessary parties – we have a number of different sponsors and government partners so need to ensure everything’s consistent. There’s also generally at least one meeting with the OzAsia in-house team.

During Festival time every day is completely different – a lot of escorting artists to radio interviews, arranging television media calls and weather crosses, arranging photos…it’s adrenalin-pumping and I love it, though anyone who’s worked in it can tell you that you try and be as prepared as possible, but your schedule will constantly change due to other news of the day, updates with your artists, and so on.

How do you think “arts PR” differs from, say, “corporate PR”?
I’ve never worked in corporate PR so it would be interesting one day to make the comparison! However I would imagine we are lucky in that we get to work with some extremely creative artists and have the opportunity to showcase their talents, and help them tell their stories, to the world. I would anticipate a lot of corporate spokespeople are media trained; for many artists this is not their forte and something they may need more preparation time for. I would also presume it’s a bonus when your spokespeople are based in the one location – with artists all over the world we’re frequently scheduling interviews at all kinds of times to allow for international clocks, or completing interviews via email due to language differences.

Tell us about the Adelaide Festival Centre communications team: what roles does it include, and how do you all work together?
There are four of us: myself, Francesca Belperio, Genevieve Meegan (publicity execs) and Clare Axford (publicity coordinator), and we like to think we’re a pretty great team. Francesca looks after Cabaret and Genevieve looks after DreamBig and the Guitar Festival, so as I do with OzAsia, in each instance that person is kind of the lead publicity contact, but the others all provide support wherever we can (particularly during the festival itself when it’s all hands on deck!). For example, currently we have the stage production of Dracula here – Genevieve is the lead publicist on it and so been the main contact with the company, but then Francesca and Clare have also assisted with confirming interviews and on-the-ground publicity.

Clare also looks after her own publicity campaigns, particularly for visual art, and individual music/theatre/dance performances, and collates our publicity reports at the completion of each campaign – she’s also in regular contact with Isentia who do our media monitoring…no small job!

It’s tempting to want to measure PR results with
tickets sold but you can never make that claim!

Can you tell us a bit about your role with State Theatre Company. Is there a particular production you enjoyed promoting and what were some of the PR results achieved?
I loved the three years I spent there as PR Coordinator – it’s a much smaller company of 20 fulltime staff or so, and with almost every production having the sets designed/built and costumes made in-house, they involve the entire company in the process from start to end and you feel like a close-knit family. I also looked after the social media accounts, wrote stories for the subscriber newsletter and looked after the archives room – a fascinating place I could have spent hours in!

It’s difficult to narrow it down to a particular production…working with high-calibre names such as Jacki Weaver and Garry McDonald certainly assisted with getting national coverage. It’s tempting to want to measure PR results with tickets sold but you can never make that claim!

A couple of Facebook campaigns I enjoyed though were our 2011 production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) which was a comedy aimed at primary school kids with all 37 productions in about 80 minutes. The marketing campaign involved a cutout of a very small William Shakespeare cartoon character (tagline ‘just the best bits’) so I spent an afternoon photographing him at different locations backstage and around the Festival Centre, with captions written in Ye Oldy Worldy Shakespeare which was a lot of fun. It’s here if you want to have a look! And then did something similar for Three Sisters with our three Russian ‘Kardashian sister’ dolls here.

Do you need to be a theatre and arts fan to be successful in your role?
As a PR student I actually wrote my final-year report on this very subject! I don’t think it’s mandatory, no, but it helps a lot. A large part of the job is seeing the shows/exhibitions you’re promoting, so as well as this generally being after-hours, if you don’t enjoy watching artistic performances you’re probably going to be counting every minute in your head! That goes doubly for musicals…Plus it’s useful to keep up-to-date with arts industry knowledge locally and nationally and to read the relevant publications (the Weekend Australian’s Review and Magazine sections being big ones) – those are my usual Saturday afternoon reading anyway so it’s not difficult.

What advice would you give a third-year university student who’s keen to work in PR?
Well, like many, I got my start in volunteering and can’t speak highly enough for how much this helps you to gain industry knowledge and experience that you can’t get in the classroom. If you stick your hand up for everything you’re bound to get noticed, and having supervised a lot of interns over the years I can say it’s easy to tell those who are able to solve problems and use some initiative, over those who are constantly asking for the next job to do (we love and need go-getters in the arts, I can tell you!).

Have never run up eight flights of stairs so quickly in my life!

I don’t think it hurts either to get in touch with people who work in the career/industry you are interested in, and ask if they’d have time to meet for a coffee and a chat – you’re not there to pin them down for a job, but I think most people love getting to feel important and share some knowledge. I do anyway!

If you’re specifically referring to arts PR, I can say the arts festivals are always looking for volunteers, and PR teams in particular will usually take on a couple at festival time to help with the volume of media clippings, ticket requests, interviews and more that are thrown at you on a daily basis. One of my first internships was on the 2006 Festival of Arts doing just that.

Time for a fun question: have you witnessed any stage mishaps – that you’re allowed to share?
Hmm…I can’t honestly think of any stage mishaps. I normally would only see a performance at opening night or onwards, when that’s all been ironed out – the funnier stuff happens in rehearsals!

The production team borrowed a machine
nicknamed the “Chunder-tron”

However we’re lucky to meet all sorts of artists with all sorts of quirks, some of which we don’t always know ahead of time…I’ve had someone lead us to four different Adelaide cafes to find one that served the exact right vegan food for lunch, and someone else who, fair enough, wasn’t aware until we got to 5AA radio for a 7:30am radio interview that it was on the 4th floor…and she had a phobia of lifts. Have never run up eight flights of stairs so quickly in my life!

There was also a State Theatre Company production called God of Carnage which involves one (quite intoxicated) character throwing up in the second half. The production team borrowed a machine nicknamed the “Chunder-tron” from Melbourne Theatre Company, and this was hidden behind the couch, with a connecting hose joined up to a mechanism the actress was already wearing by one of the other actors in a sneaky hand move. It looked hilarious when it worked, but just in case it malfunctioned, the backup plan was that someone would hand her a can of Coke, also already filled with the fake vomit for her to drink and spit out again. I think this occurred a couple of times and the audience still was none the wiser, but I quite enjoyed learning about the fake vomit process.