Beached – A PR Disaster

The recent furore over Opera North’s proposed cancellation of Lee Hall’s Beached – provoking allegations of homophobia against the local education authority – has now seemingly died down, with the show now set to go ahead after an uneasy truce has been called between all parties.  However, the way in which the story broke and developed sheds a great deal of light on how PR works within the arts.

The breaking of the story came after Lee Hall posted about the censorship of his work on the Guardian Arts Blog.  As revealed in his own blog on the case, theatre editor Andrew Dickson and his team were contacted by Hall on the morning of Friday 1st July about the possibility of him blogging the problems he was facing – a story thought worthy of carrying, and more-so after Opera North apparently announced the show’s cancellation on the Friday evening.  On Sunday 3rd July at 9:30pm, Hall’s blog was published on the Guardian website, and by the time morning arrived had been picked up on, circulated and commented upon – particularly through Twitter.  The condemnation of Opera North’s kowtowing to the school’s alleged homophobic approach – as opposed to them backing Hall’s work as a commissioned artist – was particularly widespread amongst the section of the arts community I follow on Twitter, and the inevitable Facebook protest groups and blogs in response began to appear at an ever-increasing rate.

It should be noted that all of this happened over the course of a weekend, and by the time Opera North’s offices would have opened once more on Monday morning the situation would have been far beyond their control.  Subsequent press releases and responses to the situation from Opera North were either poorly-handled or picked apart by those who felt let down by the company’s approach to the situation, and as the story went viral across the globe Opera North found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place; should they stand their ground and avoid damaging their relationship with the school and LEA – without whom the production could not go ahead anyway – or should they back their artists and make a stand against what could be perceived as overt homophobia?  After an undoubtedly large number of fraught meetings behind-the-scenes, a compromise was reached between all concerned parties – and this weekend Beached was performed in Bridlington as originally planned, receiving a positive review from The Guardian, where the whole scandal first erupted.

It goes without saying that homophobia in any form is unacceptable, and it is disappointing that the school’s initial approach gave credence to the notion that homosexuality is ‘wrong’ – by trying to ‘protect’ their pupils from the show’s content, they instead were prepared to deny them the opportunity to take part in a large-scale project taking in diverse themes, providing a form of education that cannot be offered formally.  The content in Beached was clearly far from gratuitous, and all seemed appropriate in the context which is was presented in – but we can at least be grateful that common sense eventually prevailed.

As mentioned before, though, I’m most interested in the PR aspect of this story.  I was first made aware of the story – as no doubt most people were – through Lee Hall’s blog; an entry full of passion, fire and brimstone from a clearly angry playwright.  Reading the piece – as well as Hall’s comments on the subsequent Facebook group supporting his case – made it easy to feel sympathy with him, and anger with Opera North; hence the backlash against the company which followed.

However, it needs to be remembered that Hall’s piece was a blog, and not an editorial piece directly from the Guardian Arts Desk – it came from one particular viewpoint, with no direct response available when it was published.  Whereas traditional journalism might usually offer the other side right to reply, a blog has no such requirement – blogs are the writer’s personal views, and whilst the debate rages on whether or not bloggers should be bound to a code of conduct/ethics for now at least this doesn’t exist.  Hall approached the Guardian about writing a piece, feeling this case needed wider attention – which is undoubtedly true considering the debates which followed – and wrote from the heart, with few restrictions on what he wrote and how.  But should Opera North have also been given the opportunity to reply at the same time?

I have some concerns about the fact that the blog was published at a time where it was allowed to gather apace before Opera North had any chance of replying; the company would have no doubt been locked in discussions on Monday morning about how best to phrase their response, ensuring that they avoided recriminations from offending any of the other parties as much as possible whilst still making their position clear.  As it happened, they had backed themselves into a corner my marginalising Hall when making the decision to cancel, and subsequently their press releases saw them having to stick to their position of backing the school whilst paying lip-service to Hall’s artistic vision; praising his work whilst still enforcing such archaic notions of censorship on what he had produced for them made their comments seem all the more insulting.  I’ve talked previously on this blog about how careful companies need to be in such situations to avoid a PR nightmare, but there are always the pressures of making a timely response to avoid things being blown too far out of proportion – and by the time Opera North did respond, the level of ill-well generated towards them meant their press releases were picked apart by a baying public.

Whilst all this happened in the public domain, discussions clearly happened behind the scenes to help get to a point where the project was able to continue – albeit with a somewhat uneasy truce.  But why did it get to that stage in the first place?  Why were these conversations not had at a much earlier stage, when the school’s issues became clear and before Hall’s blog was published?  The relationship between writer and company was clearly strained to breaking point, but it being allowed to get to that stage is a huge concern in such a collaborative context – and despite the eventual success of the project, the reputations of those involved will no doubt have been affected by what came before.  If nothing else, this whole case shows how damaging it can be for such dirty laundry to be aired in public.

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