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Flash Advice, 9-26: 4 a.m. Flack Attack Blues
The Best Publicists in New York, 2006
"Without adequate publicity, all efforts fail."
-- Joseph Pulitzer
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider
The past two years, the time elapsed since the last time I updated this list, have not been good ones for dance publicity. The publicity director for a major New York theater, apparently supported by her theater's director, reacted to criticism from a media outlet by no longer granting its press ticket requests, effectively punishing the venue's artists in whose interests she should be acting. The publicist for an artist presenting a major effort in New York failed to contact the New York media outlet which had first written about the production about the New York run; the artist said it was not his problem. The publicist for another major theater said that if an arts editor wanted to continue to receive the press releases for the theater's slim dance offerings which the editor was not receiving anyway, the editor had to be willing to be continued to be subjected to the theater's hefty releases on all its offerings. And I'm not even telling you the worse story I've heard because I already got in trouble for telling the artist in question about it.
Additionally, the ranks of the effective PR professionals have dwindled. (Here and throughout, it should be emphasized that with the exception of the examples cited above, I'm referring to independent publicists and not those who work full-time for theaters.) One solidly reliable PR veteran, Grant Lindsey, decided to move on; another new bright light, Tom Pearson, barely had time to glimmer before he decided to do the same to concentrate on his dance career.
Voila the fear and loathing that wake a grizzled editor at 4 a.m. and send him, hunched if not positively prone, to his figurative Underwood to tell you where he thinks you should go to get not just competent service (some competent agencies have been left off this list; their omission should not be taken as a dis) but excellent PR value from hungry publicists eager to see you get the most for your precious PR dollars.
But first, some general guidelines:
Your publicist should know dance and dance media. (This may seem obvious, but you should see some of the saccharine superlative-laden press releases I get... or never receive.) A dance-illiterate PR won't be taken seriously by a dance-literate editor (yes, there are still some of us), and thus, neither will you. He or she should know your work or be ready to get to know it. They should believe in it, so that their press releases are believable. They should be able to write distinctive PRs -- that distinguish your work from the hundreds of others about which a grizzled editor or critic is receiving PRs. Take a look at previous examples to see if the same generic adjectives continue to be called into service. Your press rep. should have an exhaustive press list that is not confined to the obvious dance candidates, and a track record of placing stories.
Last but most important, ask for references from current or past clients.
Here, then, are some ideas for you, presented in no particular order; as usual, I've excluded publicists who work full-time in-house for one client for the simple reason that they probably won't be available to you.
The Cool One: Spin Cycle's Ron Lasko continues to write the best press releases in the business. They're riveting, refreshingly free of dance cliches, light on useless superlatives and heavy on real, tactile, descriptive -- even aesthetic -- information that aids a besieged editor in figuring out what's distinct about Lasko's artists. Because his clients often include new artists (note to publicists or, rather, artists who do their own: 'emerging artists' is hereby banned from all PR) with little or no press clips, writing PR for them is not easy; the publicist has to actually work to get a handle on the artists -- interviewing them and sitting in on rehearsals, for example -- instead of merely lifting from an existing press file. Past clients include PS 122 in the good ol' Mark Russell days. Current clients include Fringe/NYC and the city-wide European Dream Festival. Lasko is also immersed in the theater world, always an advantage because he can throw the net wider, not just ghettoize you to the dance media (and audience). He's someone who genuinely gets -- and cares about -- the big picture. You might miss this because he's so nice, but Lasko is also smart; if you try to explain your work to him in words, even if your name is William Forsythe, he might actually understand you. Genre strengths: Post-mod, post-post-mod, dance-theater and other hybrid work. Contact Lasko at Spin160@aol.com.
It's now five a.m. and I feel better already. Time for a nap. Knowing that I'll be continuing with the reliable Tom D'Ambrosio should help evade the nightmares. (Swarms of flacks flying above me just out of reach waving around press releases whose words I can't read, playing hide and seek with publicists who tell me it's for them to know and me to find out where their clients are playing, being submerged in a sea of emerging artists.... You get the picture.)
The Consummate Pro: Tom D'Ambrosio doesn't dazzle like some publicists; he's more a BMW than a jaguar. And yet over the past three years, through determined effort and an impeccable professionalism, D'Ambrosio has helped Richard Kornberg Associates -- which took over the Joyce Theater account two years ago -- become New York's platinum PR agency for dance. Already a power-house in theater -- it repped "RENT" -- Kornberg with D'Ambrosio has steadily built its portfolio, which now includes PS 122, Momix, and, for its upcoming Joyce run anyway, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. D'Ambrosio and Kornberg are thorough, getting PR out way in advance (when their clients cooperate), quickly responding to questions, and arranging for press tickets without a glitch. (This might seem like a no-brainer, but many are the press agencies with brain lapses.) An extra plus is that by hiring Kornberg, you tap into its contacts in the theater press as well as dance. Strengths: Modern, dance-theater hybrid, mainstream, Broadway or Broadway-bound. Contact D'Ambrosio at Tom@KornbergPR.com.
Nice Guys Finish First: Who says the part of the veteran publicist has to be played by Edmund O'Brien? As an editor, I can tell you that Kevin McAnarney is a pleasure to work with. More important to you, McAnarney also gets his press releases out way in advance. (Also should be a no-brainer, but....) Realizing that an editor's brain is like a sieve, he then sends out reminders closer to the event. McAnarney's press releases -- and his overall attitude in working with the press -- are marked by their ebullience. (To tell the truth, I'm not sure how he's been able to work for so many years with grizzled journalists like me without evidently becoming jaded.) His clients have included American Ballet Theatre, Career Transition for Dancers, National Ballet of Cuba, Hamburg Ballet, and Tango Fire. Strengths: Ballet, hybrid ballet-Broadway, gala events, theater, and visiting international and national companies. E-mail McAnarney at KPMAssociates@aol.com.
Nice Gals do too: Our late colleague Gary Parks introduced her to me as "the nicest publicist" in dance, and in 11 years, Ross has yet to let Gary or me down. Clients have included Limon Dance Company, Feld, Buglisi-Foreman, Nai-Ni Chen, New Chamber Ballet, Tap City, and dozens of others. Strengths: Modern, "ethnic," ballet, Broadway, dance-theater hybrid, and non-performance events such as competitions, awards ceremonies, and galas. Contact Ross at AudreyRossPub@aol.com.
(Relatively) New Kid in Town: Amidst the general declining quality and quantity of dance publicity (not just in New York), there has been one positive development since we last updated this list: The emergence of Jonathan Marder's General Strategic Marketing on the scene. If there's one thing independent dance publicists are all too rarely, it's hungry, and GSM is the exception to that rule. The firm entered center-stage, taking on the Martha Graham account when the Martha Graham Center was in the midst of a protracted legal battle with its former artistic director. While Ron Protas's legal team occasionally gave the Graham side a run for its money, the PR battle was no contest. Many dance publicists quake if a news story threatens to disrupt their safe artsy equilibrium, when in fact they should usually be embracing it as an opportunity for exposure. Marder and his team, by contrast, took the Graham (news) story and ran with it. They did this not by spin, but simply by making sure journalists could easily access copies of the various court decisions. Marder stumbled once -- abetting the Graham board's attempt to spin its firing of directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin as an elevating (to 'artistic director laureates.') While I wouldn't want to tell a publicist his job (not I!), I would suggest that if he wants to maintain his credibility with journalists -- and thus over the long haul be useful to all his clients -- there are times when a publicist has to say no to a client's wishes. This would have been one of those times. I hope Marder's learned his lesson. I include him and GSM on this list in the faith that he has, and that this incident was just a minor blip on an otherwise sterling track record. And because of the many other reasons to recommend the agency, including one more: When you hire a PR firm that's more than a one-person operation, you're not always going to get the boss. So it's important to evaluate not just the top person, but the account exec(s) who might actually be assigned to promote you. Marder has always hired the creme de la creme to assist him, so that even if he personally does not handle your account on a day-to-day basis, you'll still be in good, professional hands. (Not always the case at other agencies.) Strengths: Complex 'stories,' launches. (Note to the client planning a launch: Hire your agency at least a year ahead of time, and not at the last minute; otherwise you make it and you look bad.) Contact Jonathan Marder at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One final note: By my dismal assessment of the overall state of the field of independent publicists, I don't want to give the impression that those who made this "Best" list got here only because there's so little competition. Au contraire! These five would be among the best in whatever PR genre they chose; we're just lucky that they've chosen dance. Our only misfortune is that we do not have more like them.