Tackling Taboos

As a public relations firm specializing in the arts, we have the awesome opportunity to promote some of the most creative talents working today, from visual to performance artists, from musicians to moviemakers. As expected, frequently artists will “push the envelope” with their output so as to get a message across or to get attention (or both). Over the years, The Silverman Group has counted among its clientele productions with titles or subject matters that could be considered taboo, off-color or even offensive, including The Vagina Monologues, Puppetry of the Penis, and a ‘dramatic fantasia’ about the controversial comedian Richard Pryor. Based in a major urban market, such as Chicago, it is presumed that audiences here can handle provocative works of art – but indeed what does one do when the news may not be “fit to print”? The consummate professionals of The Silverman Group know how to be delicate with indelicate material and still convey a positive message.

At the most basic level, it helps that The Silverman Group has a reputation for handling quality clientele – so that the media can be assured that what we are promoting is generally “schlock-free,” and even if not a reporter’s fancy, still a professional project of worth to someone.

That said, specifically, there are two primary ways that we have successfully tackled taboos: by getting past the work’s title (and to the heart of the matter) and by promoting to a relevant audience (and not trying to convert the masses).

Getting past the title (and to the heart of the matter) involves educating the media (and thus the public) on what the project is actually about – looking beyond the quick sound bite to discuss the subject matter in the spirit in which it was intended. Certainly, as the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and announcing Chicago productions of The Vagina Monologues and Puppetry of the Penis did attract a lot of attention – both positive and, if not negative, then skeptical. However, in order to not only spark dialogue, but also sell tickets, it was up to The Silverman Group to move forward with maturity and an informed message about the value of each production. For The Vagina Monologues, playwright Eve Ensler’s important, brave and poignant collection of first-person stories, the strategy was to illuminate the intelligent content of the production and its universal messages. The best way to sell the production was ultimately via Ms. Ensler, a well-spoken advocate and women’s rights ambassador who was very willing to conduct interviews. Her thoughtful dialogues with press informed the subsequent “post-announcement” coverage of the production which, despite its frisky title, was a serious work with heart in addition to humor. On the flip side is Puppetry of the Penis, a playful, provocative comedy for two men practicing the “ancient art of genital origami.” Intended strictly as entertainment, the producers of a Chicago run from the outset encouraged us to have fun with the show, and so an announcement press conference was held in the upscale, historic Drake Hotel, and later, “local auditions” were held, as judged by a popular radio “shock jock.” The key was treating the show with respect for the good time it promised, and letting conservative groups or press create the controversy!

In the end, these two anatomically named works couldn’t have been more different, but each was no less relevant to its unique target audience – and that leads to the second tactic employed when tackling taboos: Recognizing the relevant audiences and promoting to them, rather than trying to convert the masses.

Unless a client is truly of interest to the masses, a public relations campaign starts with identifying who are the “publics” that will find the work the most appealing, and then catering a tailored message to them. To that end, we acknowledged that truly only the most enlightened males would be considered The Vagina Monologues theatergoers, so efforts were steered toward outlets reaching informed women, and frequently the reporters or critics were, themselves, informed women who could relate to and appreciate the subject matter. It was even more important to communicate to the right audience(s) with the right message about Puppetry of the Penis, i.e. those looking to laugh and have a good time.

Ultimately, there’s no use trying to simply sell a ticket to someone who will not enjoy the production/project – and then spread poor word-of-mouth about it! The Silverman Group excels at managing expectations, ideally those of the client, but certainly those of the audience, too.