Publicity Basics

The consolidated, updated, reformatted publicity basics, 2016 version. I apologize for the formatting; Blogger has a crappy not-quite-WYSIWYG post editor and no amount of fiddling, short of unpacking extremely messy HTML, will make this look better.

DO read Proper Discord's DO and DON'T list. (2012: no longer available)(No, wait! It's May, 2012, and he's back!)

DO read this fine article by Alaina Johns.

For Fuck's Sake

Two points here.

1. Make sure that whatever format you're using for publicizing that concert includes all of the baxics. That means:
  • Who is performing (the group or the individual performers or the group plus soloists). Yep, I received notice of a program recently that didn't include the performer names, and they were performers I have huge respect for.
  • What they are performing. Don't make us guess! The works being performed really do affect who attends your concerts. Yep, I received one of these this week.
  • When the performance is. Please, PLEASE include the day of the week as well as the date and time. Again, make it easy. Don't make us have to consult a calendar.
  • Where the performance is. Mentioning bus / subway / other mass transit lines really helps, too.
2. Do not make unverifiable claims. 
  • Good: "We're a new group of experienced singers dedicated to performing new music." 
  • Bad: "We are the San Francisco Bay Area’s premier professional chamber choir." By the way, our first performance is in a few months! We've never performed as a group before. I just can't convey what a turnoff it is to see this kind of claim. It is ill considered, disrespectful to the many existing professional choirs, and suggests that you don't have a publicist. Also, if I attend your first concert and I think that you're not the Bay Area's premier professional chamber choir, guess what I am going to lead with, if I'm in an uncharitable mood.

The Email Itself

DO know to whom you are pitching. Pitching interviews with fashion, tech, or business folks to me means that you've got an error in your mailing list or you don't know what I write about.

DO use mailing-list management software such as Constant Contact or MailChimp. It'll make your life a lot easier and will provide unsubscribe, analytics, good-looking formatting options, etc.

DO make sure that the unsubscribe link on your publicity emails works.

DON'T tell someone that you will take them off your mailing list unless you are going to actually take them off.

DO use blind carbon copy. That is, don't open-copy your mailing list. Many people, especially high-profile individuals, do not want their personal email addresses circulated by others.

DO use a real person's name, not a role, for the email address and viewable name for the account from which any publicity email is sent. I nearly deleted an interesting item because the email address that I saw in my inbox was Sales Intern.

DO make the subject line something meaningful. I almost trashed email once that had the subject line "YOU GO GIRL!!" because it looked like spam to me. I stopped to take a look and found that it contained important news. "ICE Founder and Flutist Claire Chase Wins Important Competition" would have gotten my attention real fast.

DON'T make the mistake some hapless flak made in email to Joshua Kosman:
Hope all is well, [TK]. I wanted to reach out to follow up on...
DON'T write a personal note that makes it sound as though you do read a blogger's blog, then make it obvious that you don't.

DON'T offer to write a posting for a blog that never runs guest postings, then make things even worse by saying it would run under the blogger's name rather than as guest posting. Yes, I got an offer like this once.

DON'T write a fake personal note as part of the email. You know what I mean: "Hey...I was just reading your blog and thought this might interest you." I can't stand those, and while I might be more sensitive than most to fakery, or email that looks fake, I assure you that being professionally direct and impersonal is much, much better than anything with a whiff of the fake about it. "Dear Media Professional" is fine; no cover note at all is fine. Fake friendliness is out, because you don't know who will be rubbed the wrong way by it.

DO get the details right when the email is personalized. Spell the recipient's name right, to start with. And make sure you know to whom you are speaking. I once received email that included "I know you're in Germany, but your readership is probably international." The sentiment is a good one; the mistake was an honest one, but I stopped reading right there. I roll my eyes slightly, but I read on, when I get email with salutations to Linda or Laura. (I'm Lisa.) So try to get the recipient's name right.

DON'T use someone's full name when you're sending a personalized email. that is, start the email with Lisa or Dear Lisa, not Lisa Hirsch or Dear Lisa Hirsch.

 include a reply-to email address or send email from an address that can receive email. That is, make it really really easy for people to click Reply to send a response. DON'T make people hunt through the body of the email to find the correct email address to reply to. (This doesn't always apply to the monthly What's Up email, such as SF Opera's e-opera mailings, but to anything more personal than that. The e-opera mailings are newsletters and set expectations so that no one would expect to be able to reply to them - I think. It would never occur to me, anyway.)

DO make sure that your email is advertising what you think it's advertising. Right now, I'm looking at an email where the subject line makes it appear to be an invitation to an event where a composer will discuss a new work. In fact, the embedded video is where the composer is discussing the work, and the email is intended to get you to buy a ticket to a performance with multiple works and composers on it. You can't tell this from the email, though.

The Press Release

DO learn how to write a press release! If you provide only a link to your web site, and the journalist then has to poke around a lot to figure out what you are performing, when, where, and what ticket prices are, well, you're making it as difficult as possible for that journalist. 

 put the most critical information (dates, times, works, performers, ticket prices, venue) someplace easy to locate. Right at the top is good; if you send out many press releases, put this information in the same place every time, whether at the top or bottom. Just make it easy to find.

DO include the day of the week as well as the date. It's not that hard to do this.

DO include the works that will be performed in your press release or the body of the email. Yes, I just got an email about a concert that mentioned the theme of the concert but had nothing at all about the composers or works to be performed.

DO format work names correctly. There are style guides to help with this. Briefly, works that are identified by genre and work number aren't formatted with quotation marks or italics. Works with titles are formatted with either quotation marks or italics. This is incorrect:

Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5 in C minor" 

This is correct:

Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor 

This is incorrect:

Verdi, "Overture to La Forza del Destino"

This is correct:

Verdi, Overture to La Forza del Destino 

This is correct:

Schubert, "Das Wandern", from Die schöne Müllerin

bury the lede. I once opened a press release where the performers' bios - a page and a half of bios - were before the full program, which was last in the press release. The top of the press release had the major work in large, bold-faced type, with the composers of the other works in teeny type, very easy to overlook. Don't do that! The major work on the program is one that gets performed a lot; for a fair number of people, the rarities would be the real draw. Put the full program at the top of the press release.

DON'T bury performer names and a list of works to be performed in a barrage of program-note-like words.

DO paste the full text of the press release into the email or provide a link to a web page. Conversely, DO NOT attach Word or PDF documents. You don't know who has Acrobat Reader or the right Word version installed. Word 2007 (docx) format is not backward compatible with older versions unless the older version has a compatibility patch installed. (I can tell you from personal experience that Word 2007 on the MacBook Pro I use for work freezes up from .doc files.) Moreover, Word and PDF are both notorious carriers of viruses.

DO include the full cast if there's an opera in your announcement or the singers' names if it's an orchestral work with vocal parts. I once received a Spoleto Festival USA announcement that mentions performances of Louise with only the soprano's name, and performances of Das Lied von der Erde without either of the singers' names. I am certain that the Festival had singers under contract for performances that were taking place six months after the mailing.

DON'T send out an update to your season schedule that makes it impossible to figure out what the updates are. Find some way to highlight or summarize them. Don't make readers comb through the press release with a magnifying glass.

 be judicious in your use of adjectives. Plastering a press release with them doesn't make the artist in question look better; it makes you look worse.

DO provide a variety of photographs or a link to photos. Head shots are good, but include photos of the artist playing his or her instrument.

DO read and approve any email or press releases being sent by publicists on behalf of your organization AND DO know to whom it is being sent and why. Yes, that is a bit mysterious. I am hoping to be able to post further about the particular amazing example of human stupidity that I saw this week.

DO consider writing informal, entertaining, or humorous press releases, but be extremely careful with your tone. Humor varies around the world, and be especially careful if you're addressing the press release to individuals in different countries.

DO make sure the press release is relevant to the people you're emailing. I am happy to read press releases for events all over the world, but not everyone is. On the other hand, I rarely read pop music press releases. That is, know your audience.

DO proofread what you're sending out. Make sure performer names, dates, times, locations, and ticket prices are correct and easy to find. Use that spelling checker. Have someone check your grammar if it's not your strong suit. Anyone can inadvertently leave word out. (See?)

DON'T use the passive voice! And DO make an effort to make your press releases lively and readable. The press is more likely to show up if you haven't put them to sleep at the keyboard.

DO use 10 or 12 point type. Twenty-odd years into the digital age, I feel like I shouldn't have to say this any more, but since I recently received a print document from a nonprofit service organization where the point size went down to 6 and maybe 4 point type.... That's unreadable without a magnifying glass.

DON'T make people click through to your web site to find information that you omitted from the press release. This means you, New York Philharmonic: I would read many more of your press releases if I didn't have to click through and download a PDF.

 include contact information, and make it an email address. What if your media contact has a question or wants more information or is thinking of writing a story? Make it easy for the press release recipient to contact the right person at your organization.

Choose Your Format Carefully

DON'T use pale red, 6 point type! Just don't! That is, unless you consider your season brochure to be a work of art rather than something people might want to read. I mean, there is no chance I will come to your concerts if I can't read the brochure. To the organization that did this - you never replied to either of my emails telling you the brochure is unreadable and suggesting you do something different next season. Um, that also reduces the chances of my attending your concerts. [Update, 2016: the new brochures are better but still too artsy.]

DO make it easy for people to find the information they want. This means, DON'T use an overly complicated or fussy layout, or more than 2 fonts in one document. This is a particular hazard if you're emailing HTML copied directly from your organization's web site. Again, 20 years into the digital age...just don't do anything that reduces readability or findability.

DO take into account the popularity of smart phones. The next time your organization is thinking of sending out a mass mailing, whether a press release or a brochure, check what it looks like on a few popular mobile phones: iPhone, the Android model of your choice (in a browser AND the native Gmail client), Blackberry, etc.

If the user has to scroll all over the place to read your mail, change the format. This happens most commonly on my Android phone with HTML email that uses fixed-width columns for formatting.

If you're sending out Word documents or PDFs, your important news won't necessarily get read on a mobile phone, because of the mediocre support for those formats.

Once again

  • Plain text and rich text are the safest formats for emailing publicity info. 
  • Prettiness is less important than getting read. 
  • Don't make people open another application to read your press release. 
  • Don't make them click a link to find vital information.
  • Don't make them scroll.
I'm going to add one more good reason for this: plain and rich text are friendly formats for people who use screen readers. Speaking of screen readers, DON'T embed concert information in a graphic! Screen readers can't parse text in graphics.

Be Good to Your Subscribers and Other Ticketholders

DO send out your press release and other publicity before single tickets go on sale. Subscribers really want the ability to order a subscription before single-ticket buyers can snap up the best seats.

DO mention any special subscriber perks in your publicity. The first local visit by an internationally-famous group counts.

 get mailings and email to potential ticket-buyers far enough in advance that they can plan to be at your event. Three days before the event is not far enough in advance.

THINK really seriously about making a better offer to non-subscribers than to subscribers, I have written some scorching email to orgs that messed this up.

Be Good to the Organization You're Working With

DO stick to the story you've developed with the organization you represent.

DO make sure you have the approval of the organization you're working with before you send out any email or PRs.

DO know to whom it is being sent and why.

Dealing with the Press

DON'T refuse to give out contact information for your publicity person.

DO make press and blogger ticket offers, especially if you're a small or amateur arts group. Amateur groups (community choruses, etc.) need all the publicity and all the ink they can get. Your group doesn't sell out its venues, right? So giving away a dozen or so tickets is well worth it.

DON'T send that press comp offer 24 hours before the event. It's too late.

DO respond promptly to press inquiries, even it's "I need to find that for you. It'll take me a few hours or until tomorrow."

DO send your press releases out far enough in advance that you make publication deadlines. The week before the concert is too late.

DO keep the contact list for your organization (or client) consistent. That is, if you're sending press releases to a particular list, always use that list; if you're offering comp tickets or interview opportunities to a particular group of people, keep it consistent.

Use Some Sense 

DON'T send four emails in two weeks about your show. It's just too much.

DON'T shoot yourself in the foot. Goodness, I've seen this one a few times.

DON'T send out 50 page PDFs. Just. Don't.

DON'T threaten legal action against people who are giving you free publicity! If you think there's something on a blog or web site that legally should not be there, write polite, non-threatening email and maybe even thank the person who took the time to review your performances. If you've got a fan out there, be a little appreciative! Believe it or not, all publicity is not good publicity. 

DO know your audience. For example, if you've decided to publicize the first recording of a recent opera on a large mailing list populated by people who own 30 recordings of every opera in the standard repertory, DON'T start your email with "If you own only one opera recording, it should be [recent opera]." There are two reasons for this. 1. Nobody on the list owns only one recording of anything. 2. If you own only one opera recording, no, it should not be the one you're publicizing. (Yes, this is drawn from real life, and yes, the sharks on opera-l tore this publicist to pieces.)

DON'T even think about posting press releases in the comments section of a blog. I've seen this happen a few times, on my blog and others' blogs. I immediately delete such comments as spam. For one thing, they're almost always irrelevant to the blog entry where they've been posted. For another, it's rude and random behavior. For yet another, the press release will be seen ONLY by people subscribed to comments to that blog entry. Lastly, it pisses people off, which doesn't do your client any good. If you've managed to find my blog, use my email address, which is

About That Bio (Primarily for Performers)

DO rewrite your bio every couple of years. Review it annually.

DON'T inflate your biography. Whether or not you wrote a dissertation can be confirmed on line in minutes. Similarly, it's easy to find out what position you held at a particular institution.

DON'T list a string of singers and refer to them as "among today's most prominent singers" when one has been dead for more than ten years, two are retired, one is likely to be retired within a couple of years, and the other two are not on most people's lists of today's most prominent singers. [I wrote this long ago enough that I don't recall whose bio committed these particular sins.)

DO consider whether it's worth listing events you participated in that most people haven't heard of.

DO consider using a current publicity photo. Yes, I'm looking at you (pianist with a photo from the 1990s).

Executive Summary

To summarize: Make it easy for people to find the important information in your email announcement or press release. Get the facts right and include everything useful. Plain text is better than something pretty but fussy.

To close with a couple of positives: whether you're a PR pro or an amateur like me (I've handled publicity for a couple of small organizations), you'll find tons of useful information at Amanda Ameer's blog, 
Life's a Pitch. And if you want to see a few examples of really good press releases, try those issued by San Francisco Opera or by publicist Louise Barder, who does a great job of providing the right information the right way at the right time.