Within minutes of curtain falling on the first preview of the new Harry Potter play, journalists had broken its 30 July embargo; tweeting and publishing reviews, as well as secrets, from the production. Do embargos still hold any gravitas in the social-media age and what can arts organisations do to uphold them?
Embargo. Three little syllables that have an awful lot of power. Or, at least, there was a time they did.
When I worked in arts journalism, it was the last great taboo to break an embargo; like a schoolchild caught bunking a lesson, you’d be quickly reprimanded and find yourself in detention (or the bottom-of-a-PR-email-list equivalent) for a few weeks until you'd written your lines of apology and vowed never to do to it again. However in an age obsessed with social media, where information can be readily shared (and indeed read) by absolutely anybody, how much gravitas does a press embargo have for the arts? And is there any way to reclaim control?
It’s a question the creative team behind one of this year’s most hotly anticipated West End spectacles are probably currently asking themselves. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a stage sequel to J.K.Rowling’s trilogy of books (perhaps unsurprisingly) of the same name, opened for first previews a week ago on June 7. By 9:56pm on the very same night, Entertainment Columnist for The Daily Mail Baz Bamigboye had tweeted one of the show’s big ‘secrets’, and The Mirror (a trusty 19 minutes earlier) had published their ‘review’ online. Not bad for a show that doesn’t open to the press until 30 July.
The journalists' reaction to the embargo sparked debate amongst others in the industry, with many angry at them for breaking it and others - despite not seeing the show in previews themselves - asking whether the current system is outdated, stressing they didn't really do anything wrong. "This seven-week gap", writes The Guardian Chief Critic Michael Billington on the difference between preview and press night, "makes nonsense of the whole notion of a “first night” and raises serious questions about the idea of “previews”".
It's hardly surprising journalists want to be the first to share information. Social media is one of the most exciting tools for arts organisations in my eyes - it not only offers targeted advertising to the people most likely to visit your work at a low cost but, more importantly, allows for the people who really matter - previous viewers - to share their opinion openly. New plays, niche exhibitions and even obscure musical troops all have equal footing for exposure if they play their cards correctly. It's not about how eloquently something is expressed - it's how far it reaches and who says it first.
It's exactly this attitude, however, that makes the topic of an embargo a precarious issue on social media. Influencers, bloggers and well-known names will often have a wider reach across a broader demographic than your best-known art critic. If 'professional' critics aren't allowed to post their thoughts until a certain date (even if they've paid for the ticket themselves), what about these influencers? It's the 'want-it-now, share-it-now' attitude of social media that makes it such an important tool for promotion, but it's also this attitude that means those with the biggest audiences are unlikely to wait to process thoughts - an hour's delay is a long time on social media ,and audiences tend to lose attention and interest quickly. 10 years ago it was the publication who could get their review online before 11pm that won the race. Now, it's who can tweet from the stalls without being noticed.
The Stage’s Editor Paddy Smith was one of the names who disagrees with this attitude, commenting “We are all competing in the same environment now. We are all aware that when people go in and do this they are doing it to gain an unfair advantage in [online] search benefit. It’s just foul play." And it's here where one of the biggest debates in the arts come into play; what, exactly, constitutes a true 'critic' and how do they differ from someone who just writes a review? When I first worked in the arts, it was one of the most contentious issues facing the industry and eight years later it still rages supreme. Perhaps, some might argue, 'professionals' differ in that their pieces shouldn't be about immediacy and should focus more on considered thought. Critics would argue on the other side that their entire position rests on informing the public first, before everyone else has seen it - a tricky debate regardless of your view. Whether or not adhering to embargoes would allow the already troubled world of theatre criticism to survive is a different matter - the one thing that is apparent, however, is that press restrictions can no longer have the same power they once did. Regardless of whether it's a professional critic or 'amateur' influencer who writes the first piece of news, a pre-emptive announcement or review is only a tweet away from ruffling any press team's feathers.
Embargoes and preview periods: crucial to allow new works to iron out creases in the production? Or outdated and impossible to uphold? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter.