Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Interview with a PR Man

Today, something of a change of pace: a peek behind the stage curtain of theatre blogging/arts reviewing. 

A fortnight ago I was invited to join a referral programme that would involve a link to purchase tickets being placed on my review. The offer explained that I would get 10% commission on any tickets purchased through the link. Considering that West End ticket prices run from about £50-£100 (and that's a conservative estimate) this isn't small change.

Admittedly, the notion of squeezing some money out this website is tempting. After all, in these trying times I'd be mad to say no to a couple more pieces of silver jingling about in my pocket. But I did say no. My instinctive reaction was suspicion that binding my critical judgment to my bank balance was a bad move.

So when asked if I wanted to chat about this service I figured why not. Promoting it is Chris Hislop, an experienced arts PR man who I know pretty well. I always look forward to his press invites as he has a pretty great track record, sending me invites to interesting and challenging fringe theatre; recently Hamlet at the Cockpit Theatre, Marching on Together at the Old Red Lion and Dante's Inferno at the Rag Factory.

I met him on the South Bank last Friday to discuss this new reward scheme. My objectives were to discover where the money paid to reviewers was going to come from, what the long-term goals of the project are and whether it affects the integrity of critics to be paid a slice of ticket revenue.

Front page of Reward Theatre
As for the first question, Chris led me through what he described as a "murky, murky world" of interactions between theatre box offices, production companies and various ticket resellers. He explained that London ticketing is based around which reseller has the cheapest ticket at the time. The tickets themselves are worth whatever they're worth at the point of origin, from there they can be sold or given to an external box office (e.g. the TKTS booth in Leicester Square). If they're sold the reseller will keep the profits, if they're given the theatre will take a slice of the sale. As described the system is "very much like stocks and shares".

Murky indeed, and a iceberg I'm glad I only see the very tip of. As I see it, in the theatre rewards system, bloggers would become passive agents for the ticket resellers. I can't imagine that the company running the service are buying tickets in bulk, so I assume they are running an external box office that buys from theatres on a per ticket basis, with the individual blogger being paid a slice of their profits. This laid to rest at least one of my worries: that I'd be siphoning off money that should go to struggling companies trying to break even.

As to the second question on the company's ambitions for the service, Chris claims there are none and no volume projections for how many tickets are to be sold via these links. The company running it apparently have no ambitions for what they want to achieve, Chris merely being hired as PR for the service to get the word out to bloggers about it and test the waters. Given that this service is apparently up and running, I find it unlikely there's not some future strategy involved. Annual London theatre box office receipts run to about half a billion pounds, a lucrative pie that any self-respecting events company should want to stick a finger into. These press links are one way in - essentially piggybacking on the reputation of theatre blogs and websites.

But it's the "selling out" factor that sticks in my throat. Prime among my concerns is that this service gives theatre reviewers a financial incentive to give positive reviews (and that most bloggers have no "Chinese wall" between advertising and editorial). After all, if you're getting paid based on the amount of tickets sold via the link, it logically would be in my interest to exalt how amazing these plays are and that you should absolutely - definitely - attend. Even if I was scrupulously honest about keeping my bias at a distance there's still (in my eyes at least), the suspicion of corruption. My nightmare scenario is me giving a panning to a crap show, then the director angrily pointing out that if he'd been part of the affiliate service maybe he'd have gotten a more positive review.

How could I counter that accusation? Ask them to trust in me that I'm not biased? In my experience, if someone says "I know this opens up the possibility of a conflict of interest, but I can assure you that I am a good person and wouldn't take advantage" I don't believe them even if they believe it themselves.  

I put this to Chris, who countered by explaining that, contrary to expectations, positive reviews "make no difference" in putting bums on seats. He explains that "all PR is good PR", what matters is volume of press, which leads to general public awareness of a show. An acidic pan might make a clanging disaster of a show sound so intriguing that rubbernecking audiences flock in (as Viva Forever! clumsily attempted). This is a slightly dispiriting revelation - I'd always liked to imagine my rave reviews were driving up audience figures. Not so: 
"It doesn't matter what the coverage is, coverage of any kind will sell more tickets.  So no, I don't think there is a problem in terms of conflict of interest because I don't think the star rating of a review affects the amount of tickets that will be sold".
Corralling press with the intention of steering the public towards a show is Chris' bread and butter, so I take him on his word on this. But he's on shakier ground when he makes the argument that because every review is influenced by factors that go unmentioned in the review, what does it matter if money happens to be one of them? 

It's here that he and I differ. For example, Chris doesn't see a problem with a critic not declaring personal connections to a show in a review: "I don't know. I don't want to know". I ask if he thinks there is a critic's 'code of ethics'. He explains that "any code of ethics is subject to mutability".  I disagree: willingness to bend your ethics depending on the situation is a pretty good indication that you weren't particularly ethical to begin with.

Maybe I just listened to a few too many Bill Hicks cassettes as a teenager, but I can't help but see money as a corrupting influence in art. I explain this and Chris responds that "by that fashion, not only does money corrupt, but relationships corrupt, humanity corrupts. Are there shows you've reviewed badly because you've been in a bad mood that day?" There aren't, and I say so. "Of course there are. Have you reviewed well because you had a nice drink and a good time?" Again, no - but if I had a good time because of a show that'd be the review. (I understand the slight hypocrisy in asking you to take my word on this).

I guess it boils down to differing perspectives. As I perceive it Chris approaches reviews from a utilitarian perspective, evaluating them by their usefulness to a press campaign and the metric of whether they can contribute to shifting tickets. So, if you view reviews as an impartial, targeted advertisement, connecting the ticket buying mechanism directly to the review is a no-brainer - if a review is shifting tickets it has fulfilled its function. 

Chris Hislop
My perspective is a bit more high-falutin'.  Even if a review gets audiences to see something, that's secondary to the primary purpose, an intellectual and emotional response to a piece of art. This is what makes a review better than an advert; it's best performed through actual honesty rather than for commercial gain.

As I see it, putting a link that gives me a commission per ticket sold creates a tiny amount of distrust between critic and audience that no amount of reassurance can get rid of. I could tell you that I'll review things exactly the same way. I could even tell myself that's what's going to happen. But what happens if one month I have less money than I need? Even if I take Chris' word that the tone of reviews makes no difference to sales the temptation is still there to skew reviews towards positivity. How can you ever know know that I'm not doing exactly that at any point?

All you'd have is my word and only a fool takes someone on the internet at their word. Even if my reviews were all genuine they'd come with a seed of doubt. Maybe some critics can deal with that - I don't want to. I prize my integrity and independence - and understand that they're fragile assets that once sacrificed, can never truly be regained.

Perhaps I'm being wilfully precious about all this. I've got a decently sized (though not mindblowingly huge) audience, and I have no idea if you'd notice or even care if I signed up to the ticket commission service. Maybe, if you approach it from a certain angle, it is indeed morally permissible for a critic to get a slice of a ticket sale. Perhaps a year from now every other London theatre blogger will have signed up to it and be rolling in that sweet commission dough, leaving me poor and envious.

But I'd feel like I'd sold out, and that's what's important.

Did I make the right decision?  Am I overthinking things? Let me know in the comments below:

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