Is there really such a thing as “No publicity is bad publicity”?

By guest blogger Rebecca Coleman

Quite a little brou-ha-ha going on these days in T.O. The Summerworks Theatre Festival, which is an independent, juried Arts festival, is causing a big stir. Well, not the festival per se, but a show in it called The Pastor Phelps Project.

Here’s their media blurb:

Pastor Fred Phelps and the good people of the Westboro Baptist Church are here to explain why God hates fags and America is doomed. It’s homophobia versus burlesque in a musical cabaret showdown. Stare into the abyss of fundamentalism; sexy political satire with razor wire barbs.

Well, the fine people at Westboro Baptist Church heard about this, and felt, I imagine, attacked, so they are putting a group together and going up to Toronto to picket the show. They have a website:

Well, all the picketing and media releases and backing-and-forthing has certainly translated into publicity for both parties. Witness today’s story in The Globe and Mail. The focus of the story and, seemingly, the moral of it, is that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

I’m not so sure. On one hand, I totally get how hard it is to produce a show, to do live theatre. There’s never enough money, you are competing with tons of other (bigger budget) productions for a limited amount of space – get people in through the door however you can. Resort to nudity and “sex” or “blowjobs” in the title of your play. But on the other hand, it makes me feel uncomfortable to do it.

In an ideal world, I would love it if people wanted to come to see our shows because of oh, say, the writing, the acting, the direction. But in a world where we are obsessed with what Pamela Anderson had for breakfast, that’s a tough one. We often feel like we have to resort to some more erm, shall we say, dramatic tactics to get people in through the door. That makes me sad.

Part of what also makes me sad is that there is no real winner in this situation. Yes, the folks at Summerworks will probably have overflowing houses. But equal attention is being paid to the guys at Westboro.

As a publicist, I was taught that if there is no conflict, there is no story. As a kid, I was taught to ignore bullies. Because if they don’t get a reaction, there’s no payoff.

Rebecca is a contributing columnist and founder of Titania Productions, a Vancouver Marketing and Public Relations Company.


  1. Interesting article. I was just talking to an artist in the Summerworks festival about this whole broohaha.

    I was like:

    I’m not so sure this is entirely a good thing. How many more hits has that website (i don’t care to re-type it) got since they started getting covered by the Globe and Mail?

    but she was like:

    Look, over all, it’s good for the festival. Outside of NOW Magazine there has been very little coverage of what is (arguably) Toronto’s most important theatre festival. At least some people know it’s going on now.

    Is all publicity, good publicity? The debate continues. I’m also really curious about “if there is no conflict, there is no story” and what that means in terms of publicity. Do you care to elaborate?

  2. Man, I’m of two distinct minds about this one. On one hand I think these jokers are just crying out to be parodied, they’re such easy targets. On the other hand, I think they’re also, like all loudmouthed purveyors of hate, dangerous. Personally, I think freaky pious frauds in general should just be ignored, as indifference is most likely their greatest fear.

    But now that someone’s put a spotlight on them, and affronted them (hopefully comedically), and they’ve brought their little travelling freakshow to Canada, hey, at least people outside of the choir are singing about theatre. I say milk the publicity. I just hope nobody gets hurt.

  3. It should also be noted that the ‘Westboro Baptist Church’ is a tiny sect comprised of Mr. Phelps and a few members of his family. It may come across in all these articles some kind of legit, entrenched organization. They’re pretty much reviled by everyone down there.

  4. “If there is no conflict, there is no story.”
    I guess what I meant by that is, that true reporters (good ones!, not rag-types) are required to show both sides of the story. If they have only one side of the story, it’s not much of a story, partly because, to be fair, they need to be able to present both sides. Ideally, their stories are unbiased, allowing the reader to make up their mind as to which side is right.
    Okay, in reality, for sure, this doesn’t always happen–sometimes they do that thing where they present one side of the story, and then they say, “We tried to reach the blah-blah party for comment, but they had not returned our calls at time of press” or something like that.
    I hope that makes sense.

  5. Hey Rebecca,

    Cool. Thanks. Yeah, I know that’s the philosophy in journalism, I’m just wondering how it plays out in publicity for theatrical events. Like with the Phelps thing you have two mutually opposed groups, so there’s conflict and a story. What if you just have a really great new play that you made with your friends? How could you use conflict in your publicity and is it necessary?

  6. Hey Mike, just filling in for Rebecca here…she’s gone camping for a couple days, so I’ll make sure she sees your last when she returns. If she doesn’t get eaten by a bear. That’s a large, hairy mammal with large teeth that lives over on this side of the country.

    Great question, by the way. I think conflict publicity could be a great creative publicity strategy if the manufactured conflict is in some way related to the work. Like, if you wrote a play about corruption in city hall, picketing outside of your city hall and handing out flyers advertising the play would be a wicked idea.

    An arrest can only help coverage too.

  7. Thank god the largest hairy mammal I saw was a skunk.
    One thing that surprises me about this whole situation is that the Pastor Phelps people seem totally shocked that this is happening. I don’t think they have a publicist, there is precious little info available about them on the web.
    Any time I have done a gig where there is some possibility of there being conflict or controversy, we were really careful to come up with a plan before–kind of like a ‘worst case scenario.’ That way, we could be prepared, just in case.
    And yeah, for sure you could use conflict to publicize your play. My fear would always be that then, it would become about the conflict, and not the show.
    I remember when I was in university, we had this black-box theatre, and us graduating students would get lunchtime shows to direct. Someone did a show about a stripper, and got super great houses. Most of the football team. These guys were not coming to see theatre. They were coming because they heard a hot chick stripped down to a g-string and pasties.
    I dunno–is it good enough just to get people in through the door? Or should we be trying to get them there for the right reasons?
    That is the question!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s