Press Agent

  • Press Agent

Press agent is the formal title given to members of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents & Managers, though members and non-members alike wear the synonymous moniker of press representative. These individuals work on theatrical productions as part of the larger marketing initiative that includes paid advertising, promotions, and press relations.


Duties

As the title implies, the press agent is the voice of the theatrical production, interacting with the media on behalf of the show’s producer(s). He or she is hired by the producer during the early stages of development (one or two years in advance of the intended opening) and will remain under contract with the show through the close of the run. Immediately upon being hired, the press representative must familiarize himself or herself with the script. From there, much of his or her work is initially routine: First there is an announcement issued about the launch of the show; this is followed up by subsequent press releases naming the cast, director, creative staff, and where the show’s tryout (out-of-town preview) will happen. The creative work begins when the press agent must pitch editors on advance stories that highlight a particular angle or narrative of interest surrounding the production. The press agent is not just in the business of corralling critics to a performance for a review or mass-producing press releases, but must also generate press coverage before the show opens, with the intent of igniting audience awareness. Human-interest stories and behind-the-scenes anecdotes grab a potential patron’s attention and create curiosity about the people involved, not just the play or musical itself.

As much as every producer hopes for a scandal-free endeavor, there are inevitable hiccups in mounting any production. The seemingly doomed-from-the-start production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is an atypical example, but other Broadway shows and their press reps have had to mitigate negative headlines and play spin-doctor over union strikes, funding shortfalls, or widely publicized disputes within the company. Part of a press agent’s job is to field calls from the media for comment when titillating news breaks, and put a silver lining to a dark cloud hanging over the show. This person is both a conduit to and a barrier between the press and the producer’s company. While critics’ reviews are customarily not published during previews, upon opening night, the press agent will quickly realize if he has a hit or a flop. A hit means that the press will come to the agent. A flop sends the agent scrambling to drum up new attention, occasionally by staging some sort of publicity stunt. The goal is to hold back the bad and push forward the good. In the end, the ultimate objective is ticket sales through free publicity.

Skills & Education

The first requirement of becoming a successful press representative is a nose for news. Beyond that, a college degree in journalism, public relations, entertainment business, or theatrical management is expected. Coursework should include the study of news writing, creative writing, new media trends and theory, and communication law. Understanding your industry is also imperative; therefore, a press agent must be familiar with the technical and creative crafts within theatrical production.

What to Expect

The gig requires a thick skin and savvy showmanship. At one time in Broadway’s early days, press agents were seen as silver-tongued licensed liars. (See the classic 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success.) It is a reputation that today’s agents take care to avoid. A press representative must be capable of gaining the trust and respect of the tight-knit community of reporters and editors, while remaining true to the person paying the bills: the producer. Career paths toward work as a press agent vary widely: Some start as journalists, others in areas of public relations or advertising. The most direct route is to gain employment as an assistant at a large PR firm and work your way up. Opportunities exist for freelancers to contract with multiple producers, or for full-time employees of a publicity and press firm that caters to the theatrical entertainment industry.

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