Life as a PR pro for the TV industry

Life as a PR pro for the TV industry
Justin Crosby of TellyCast and Boom PR talks to Shaun Weston about the effect of Covid-19 on the TV industry in this podcast transcript.

This is a transcript of a recorded podcast.

Justin Crosby

Entrance of the SVODs

Shaun: Justin, thanks for joining me on the podcast.

Justin: Thanks for having me on, Shaun.

Shaun: So you’re a PR specialist and you work specifically in the TV industry. Are you exclusively in the TV industry?

Justin: I am, yeah. I set up Boom PR about 10 years ago. I was fascinated by lots of content creators who ... er ... basically the buying and selling of television is something I find fascinating on a world market level. I set up the business 10 years ago purely to be a B2B specialist within the TV industry. It’s been an amazing 10 years. It’s been really interesting. A bit of a roller-coaster ride, as television has changed.

Shaun: It’s changed so much, hasn’t it?

Justin: Yeah, absolutely. The entrance of the SVODs [subscription video on demand] – the likes of Netflix, Apple, Google, social media and how that’s changed things, the advertising industry and how that’s affected commercial broadcasters. And obviously now, in the last three or four months, the pandemic is also shaking things up massively. It’s been a very eventful 10 years!

Shaun: To say the least, I imagine! You’re based at the famous Elstree Film & TV Studios, aren’t you? What an office!

Justin: That’s right! It’s great being there. There’s always a surprise when you come out of the door. I remember a few months ago wandering out to get a cup of coffee and seeing a load of horse guards going past, because they film The Crown there.

Shaun: Oh, The Crown, of course.

Justin: Yeah.

Shaun: Can you imagine if you had set up 30-odd years ago – probably 40-odd years ago now – and seen Indiana Jones or Superman walking by?

Justin: Or Star Wars!

Shaun: Or Star Wars indeed, yeah!

Justin: It’s a fascinating place, and actually there’s a whole load of new building going on there, which has been announced. They’re building a couple of huge, new sound stages there. And Sky are building a huge, new studio complex just up the road from there as well. It’s an interesting market. There’s a studio market in its own right in the UK, because there’s a massive shortage of studio space, and that’s going to be really interesting for the drama part of the TV industry in the next few months as production starts again. There’s going to be a huge backlog of production and everybody looking for sound stages.

Shaun: Does it help your business at all, being in that location, in terms of networking and meeting people you wouldn’t normally meet?

Justin: I thought it might when I moved in, but it wasn’t the sole reason. Geographically, it worked, but I thought it was a nice added benefit being there and that I would bump into people. I don’t tend to find there’s a massive advantage of being there other than it just being an interesting location with lots of creative people.

Video games, music and TV

Shaun: To your history, you previously worked with some big names: Taylor Herring, MS&L. So your personal passage through PR and comms is quite exhaustive, isn’t it? It’s quite full. Cake Group, I think, and Kazoo Communications. Am I right in saying that early on, before you found this niche in the TV industry, were you around video games and that sort of thing? The games industry?

Justin: That’s right, yeah.

Shaun: Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Justin: Of course. Going way back, my first job in PR was, for a very short period of time, at Biss Lancaster, where I met a few friends that I’m still in contact with to this day, which is great. I’ve always been involved in entertainment in some way throughout my career. It’s been the one constant really. My first proper role in PR was a company called Kazoo. I think I was the fourth full-time employee there. I spent four or five really happy years there, and when I left there were about 30 of us.

Shaun: Nice growth.

Justin: It was an explosive period of growth – really exciting. At that point, there were a few different agencies that were I suppose you would call “youth marketing” or “youth PR agencies”, and that was Cake, Kazoo and Slice. The three companies were at the forefront. Cake were always the biggest, Slice were a little bit bigger, and Kazoo was a little bit of an upstart. But we worked with some fantastic clients and brands in those days. It was really exciting to work on the first XBox console, and lots of video games for Activision, so obviously all of their consumer PR campaigns. That really took me forward into working with entertainment brands on a larger scale. I left there to work at a company called Cake, where I handled the music sponsorship for Carling, when Carling was a huge sponsor within the music business. That was great! They sponsored Reading Festival, and I had an amazing brief in the year or two I was there, which was to ... “Here’s a pot of money. Let’s build up Carling’s association with music and create some really interesting and credible events.” Carling sponsored ACDC shows, Travis, The Darkness, lots of different shows ...

Shaun: You essentially had your ‘black card’ – you could get behind the scenes of pretty much every top musical act.

Justin: It was great – a really interesting time. And music sponsorship was still in its infancy back then.

Shaun: And very new for Carling, I imagine. That link.

Justin: It was, yeah. They were moving more out of football at that point and more into music. Since then, I think you’ve seen O2 pick up the mantle as one of the major music sponsorship brands. Then, when I started to get involved with TV, was my time at Taylor Herring. I spent two really happy years there. They’ve now moved a little bit away from pure TV and much more into the stunts and brand entertainment; and taking consumer brands and making them famous. They do a brilliant job at that.

Staying up to date with your past

Shaun: In terms of that link, then, of staying up to date with older industries. I find this quite difficult. I was working in food and beverages for seven years and you become immersed in it, don’t you?

Justin: Yes.

Shaun: I find it hard to stay connected. After food and beverage, I worked in financial technology for five or six years. How easy do you find it to stay up to date with your older industries, or do you just have to let go? I mean, what do you know about the games industry now?

Justin: That’s a very good question. I take most of my knowledge of the games industry from my son, who’s a Fortnite nut! I tell him that I relaunched Lara Croft ...

Shaun: But he doesn’t care, does he?

Justin: He looks at me with complete disinterest! To be honest, the TV industry keeps me pretty occupied when it comes to focusing on one business, because it’s huge and varied. Am I still up to date with the games industry? No I’m not, but I still find it interesting when you’re coming up to a new console cycle. We’re going to see two huge consoles, XBox and PlayStation, launched later on this year. That’s always a really interesting time in the evolution of the games industry. Players coming in with Google ... it’s just another industry that’s been disrupted and there are some interesting developments there, but I can’t claim that I’m on the button with it anymore. I spent probably about six or seven years really immersed in it, and that was a great time, but I’ve moved on a little bit from it.

"If there’s another peak of Covid and you’re in the middle of a TV production, you essentially lose all the money."

The TellyCast podcast

Shaun: Let’s talk about disruption again. We’ve had a lot of it lately, let’s face it, with Covid-19. Not long after the lockdown, you started a podcast called TellyCast. What sparked this initiative and why a podcast in particular?

Justin: Like everything, you have a list of things you really want to do, and when you’re working in client services, you have to put the client first the vast majority of the time. I’d always wanted to do a podcast, because I think the medium is really interesting: it’s flexible, you can listen to a podcast doing the gardening or driving down the motorway or, as we all are now in lockdown, sat in your office. You can pause it when a call comes in or you’re doing a Zoom or whatever. I feel the medium is really flexible. It suits itself to a more informal kind of conversation.

Shaun: Thank you for endorsing all of this. This is my life!

Justin: [Laughs] I thought, now I’ve got a surplus of time. The whole TV industry has paused in terms of the production side of it. You can’t make TV shows at the moment, in the main. There are some shows being made, but under very strict conditions.

Shaun: I can imagine.

Justin: But one of the main issues with that is insurance at the moment. So if there’s another peak of Covid and you’re in the middle of a TV production, you essentially lose all the money. The government really needs to look at that and unlock the TV industry again by underwriting those productions. Until that happens, it’s too risky. You wouldn’t go into hundreds of thousands of commitment by filming a TV show without knowing that, you know ... If you have to stop halfway through, you’re liable. You wouldn’t do that. Nobody would do that. So the whole TV industry, certainly in the UK, is pretty much on ice. It’s starting to open up little by little – hopefully we’ll see that unlocking a little bit. It left me with a lot of time, because most of my clients are producers from right across the spectrum of television production, so natural history producers, factual producers, drama producers ... And so I had a bit of time and I realised that over the years I’ve made lots of great contacts, and met loads of really interesting people ...

Shaun: Time to give them a call.

Justin: ... yeah ... who are pretty senior. The great thing about an industry like the TV industry is that many of these people are opinionated. They’re not afraid of sharing their thoughts, their views and their insights. So that was it, yeah: I got on the phone and we’ve had a fantastic range of guests so far. The podcast is going really well. We’re up to about number 11 – the 11th show – and it’s really great fun. And it’s really odd being on the other side of the mic, Shaun!

Shaun: TellyCast is a podcast – we should let the listeners know that it covers TV industry news. It’s that niche that you’re in right now. Will it have a life after lockdown? Who knows what the normal will look like, but when things start approaching normal service (as the TV industry might say), will you still be running TellyCast do you think?Justin: Good question!Shaun: Or is it possible that access to guests might be in short supply?

Justin: In the 10 short weeks that we’ve been running the show, it’s certainly gained a lot of momentum. We’ve got listeners in over 30 countries now, and I think the feedback that I’m getting from listeners is that they really like the style, it’s an hour-long show, it’s conversational, it’s a news review. So we talk about the different developments in the TV industry over the past seven days. I ask guests to choose one or two news stories that they found interesting and why. And that can be anything over the last few weeks, from the BBC and its role in public service broadcasting and how important that’s become over the last few weeks, Netflix doubling its expected subscriber growth, and Disney+ launching out of nowhere coming to 50 million subscribers globally.

Shaun: It’s incredible.

Justin: There’s been no shortage of really interesting things to talk about; black lives matter, and huge upheaval. Will it carry on after lockdown? I hope so.

Shaun: I hope so too. I’ve become a fan.

Justin: Oh good! Thank you. It’s something that I really enjoy doing. It’s the same as everything in that you’ve got to evolve it a little bit I think. It might be slightly different in approach as we go forward. I don’t know the numbers but there must be a huge burst in podcasts launching over the lockdown. What’s been great is that guests, you know where they are: they’re going to be at home! And everybody’s schedules have opened up a little bit. People are feeling a little bit more ... happy to share their insights of what is a pivotal time in the industry. Hopefully we’ll get to the point where we’ve got an engaged, international listener base (which I think we’ve got already), and hopefully that will take us on if we change things and adapt to how people are going to consume going forward. Once people go back to work, maybe I won’t keep it at an hour; maybe we’ll pull it down to 30 or 40 minutes ... when people are back on the tube or doing their usual half-an-hour or 40-minute commute. The listeners will decide! I’ll look at those subscriber and listener numbers every week and if it starts dipping, then I’ll bow out! Nobody wants to overstay their welcome!

Podcast production is hard

Shaun: Tell me about your personal and practical journey into podcasting. Were you tapping into new skills, or have you been learning the ropes of audio production for some time?

Justin: It’s completely new to me! I’ve had a MacBook Air for years and I’ve built the company on Mac, but realised that I’ve been using about 10% of its capability – literally just email and the basics. Once you start delving into it ... Actually, what was really interesting was the theme tune to TellyCast was written by a neighbour of mine called Dave Turner and the voiceover was done by Megan Clark who lives opposite me, and her husband Dave is a drummer. We all came together and I said, “I’m thinking of starting a podcast” – because I play bass as well – “Do you fancy putting a tune together?”And we did! So that was a fun little thing on a neighbourhood level to do, and we all did it remotely, and that introduced me to GarageBand. I thought, how the hell does this thing work? Once I started struggling with that, I thought: OK, how do we record it? I’ve spent loads and loads of time on websites like BuzzSprout, which has been fantastic in terms of getting knowledge from there. I was just a complete novice learning as I was going along. I realised that, OK I’ve recorded an hour’s worth of content and need to edit it now. The first show took me about 16 hours to edit, which was a disaster. I finally put it live at five in the morning and thought, I can’t do this every week! I’ve now got a fantastic editor – a guy called Ian Chambers – who’s helping me out and giving me a day a week back essentially. I’ve been a complete novice learning on the job, but it’s been a lot of fun.

Shaun: Thanks for letting listeners, and perhaps future clients for me, understand how hard it is to actually put a podcast together.

Justin: It really is, you know!

Don’t underappreciate creatives

Shaun: I think people think any creative endeavour is easy. I’ve worked in offices before and sat on the same table as designers, and have heard people come up and say, “Can you just wap something together for me. I’ll need it in 30 minutes.” And the designer’s sat there thinking, “That job would take three or four hours of my time!” There’s an underappreciation for creative endeavours sometimes.

Justin: There is. That’s also to a certain extended – it’s a double-edged sword – fuelled by services like ‘people per hour’: you’re hourly and £20 and you think you can get a fantastic designer in Hungary or somewhere, to put a logo together or whatever. The reality of that experience is slightly different. You’re absolutely right: I think creativity is often massively overlooked and underappreciated. And that applies to anything, whether it’s PR or graphic design, sound design. It’s a skills that’s learned and honed over time. Once you become a practitioner of that, you have somebody who’s perhaps not involved in that – maybe they’re a salesperson coming up and saying “right I want this and I want this now and I want it this way”, but it doesn’t quite work like that.But yeah, it is underappreciated and I’m really hoping that the changes that Covid-19 is bringing about will help with appreciation of skill. There’s actually going to be a lot more freelancers as companies unfortunately shed jobs in the creative industry – in every industry. Hopefully people that are forced to go freelance will be treated with the respect that they deserve; that their experience deserves.

Binge TV vs the linear schedule

Shaun: Let’s come back to something you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation. It was the likes of Netflix and Apple TV+ and those guys; the online, and YouTube and everything. How do you think the creative media industry has changed over the last couple of decades? (And obviously those guys are involved.)

Justin: Well, I think the main change has been the way that we consume; the way that TV is produced but also they way we consume it. The binge element of media consumption has made a massive difference. We used to have box sets when it came to VHS and all the rest of it, but it’s kind of the return of that binge culture, which has a massive effect in terms of people being able to consume what they want when they want. That’s very much how the balance has changed, rather than being essentially forced to watch a linear schedule – you know, enjoying a show and then it ends on a cliffhanger and then you’ve got seven days to wait till the next show. In many ways, I think there is something to be said for that linear schedule. For example, I’m a huge fan of Better Call Saul. The way that’s played out is one a week, and I quite enjoy that. It’s something on a linear schedule to look forward to.But equally yeah, that’s the main change is that, not only the way we consume but also that producers have been able to hone in on niche audiences, and create content that works for audiences in the way that they live their lives, whether it’s on mobile or whether it’s on laptop – however they’re consuming it. It’s the methods of consumption and the type of content being honed towards that that’s been really interesting to see.

"I don’t think there have been that many new outlets that have developed over the past five years or so that have been particularly influential, but the news cycle has sped up."

How PR has adapted to change

Shaun: So from a PR perspective, how has PR changed because of these changes in how we consume?

Justin: Again, it’s really media outlets and the way you break a story now. You have got different options rather than ... In many ways it’s similar: print media used to be the dominant media, and the way people used to break stories was either on a daily or a weekly basis. Now obviously you‘ve not only got online media, which is by far the most dominant media in TV industry circles, but also social and the different aspects of social media. I don’t think it’s necessarily changed in the way you advise clients and the way you build influence for clients.I don’t think there have been that many new outlets that have developed over the past five years or so, that have been particularly influential, but the news cycle has sped up. Now you can be mindful of how you break a story and when, and you can time it to the minute. If you’ve got a story and you want to influence Hollywood TV executives, there’s a way to do that, and timing is important as well as the story and as well as the channel. You can be much more strategic in terms of how you announce a story.What’s interesting is that now it’s much easier to draw that line between public relations, driving stories and the business outcome of that, which was always a little bit woolly, but I think now, with digital outlets, you can join those dots up much easier. Often, it’s as simple as your client telling you, “I had 10 calls from really influential people in Hollywood on the back of that story you announced last week”, which then opens up new conversations for them, and that could be huge investment, that could be co-production on a new drama show. So that’s exciting, and it’s really what keeps Boom going as a really interesting business to lead. That satisfaction when you help clients win commissions, sell their shows and sell their businesses – that’s really why I focus on the TV industry and working on small and medium-sized businesses as clients. You do get that satisfaction when you make a discernible difference to your clients’ businesses through your efforts. It’s hugely satisfying.

Creative industry redundancies

Shaun: Is there a typical day for you or is it very changeable each day? In other words, what are your own day-to-day challenges as an entrepreneur; as the leader of Boom?

Justin: This year more than any other, you’ve got to be flexible. In many ways (and this sounds slightly perverse), I’ve actually enjoyed the change that lockdown has brought along. Working from home has its own challenges as we see every day with kids walking into TV sets or interviews. What I’ve found interesting is the industry, when it stopped in February/March – I look back at that and it’s like pickled now; I see that as almost like a freeze frame! And I know that when we get rid of this dreaded virus or we adapt to live with it, as is probably most likely, that industry’s not going to be the same. And that ecosystem is not going to be the same. It’s changing, and that period of change is going to accelerate once the government’s job retention scheme finishes in October. So unfortunately, without wanting to be a harbinger of doom, it’s going to be a really tough winter.There will be a lot of redundancies. There will be a lot of big, recognisable companies going down or completely changing the way they do business. But that presents its own opportunities. My job is to look at that and say, OK we need to change as well. I can’t expect to work in exactly the same way coming out of this. It’s about changing the perception of the business, changing what we do and what we offer as a service as well. Everybody has to reevaluate their business and their offer and adapt to this new marketplace, which is going to be really different. I think it has accelerated lots of things that maybe ... businesses that weren’t doing so well, it’s accelerated their demise, but I think it’s going to give birth to lots of new ways of doing things that’s going to lead to their own opportunities and new markets. My job is to understand what those are and be a part of that.

There will be a lot of redundancies. There will be a lot of big, recognisable companies going down or completely changing the way they do business. But that presents its own opportunities.

Next-gen PR career paths

Shaun: The last couple of questions for you, Justin: With that in mind – and I think your last answer will inform this one – what do you think PR might look like as a career path for young people listening in right now, who are aspiring PR specialists?

Justin: I think PR has been traditionally a very specific career path that not many people have had access to. It’s a predominately middle class, white-led industry; populated by middle class white people. I think it’s going to change, and I hope it does change. The PR industry is led in London, as many other industries are; its core is in London, though there are lots of centres of excellence and people doing fantastic jobs all over the country. I’m from Leeds and I was delighted when Channel 4 decided to move their headquarters up there, and this movement of wealth out to the rest of the country, and I really want to see that continue apace.

Shaun: Creative work.

Justin: Creative work, absolutely. I’m hoping that there’s going to be new opportunities for people of all backgrounds coming into the industry much more than there are now. There are some new skill sets that young people can bring to PR, which is content creation mainly. I would imagine the sort of PRs I’ll be looking to bring to the business are people that can create and edit content, whether that’s audio or video; be absolutely across all the emergent social networks; and have native knowledge of how to work within all of those social media networks. The perfect PR would also be married with the knowledge of “email is not enough” – of being able to communicate.

That’s what I worry a little bit about: the next generation of PRs being completely focused on email or WeChat or whatever instant messaging. The ability to pick up the phone and call somebody – it’s a real skill actually, being able to communicate with people on the phone. There’s an adage I live by, that if you’re going to and fro with a client and you’re trying to explain a point of strategy or a certain way of executing something, it’s not that easy to do that on email. You would need to be quite a skilled writer to be able to get your point over, and maybe email isn’t the right way to do that. The old adage that I live by is, if in doubt pick up the phone. It can lead to a more productive relationship with a client or with a journalist, or with anybody that you’re engaging, and I think the slight worry is that young people now ... they look at an iPhone and say, “You actually want to ring somebody on it?”

That’s the skill of PR really, is communication; it’s knowing how to communicate across all these different networks whether it be face to face, whether it be on the phone, whether it be via email, or via social networks or instant messaging. And being able to develop your knowledge to a point where you know which channel to use with which client. Having that mix is going to be ... The ultimate PR person of the next generation will know how to use those channels and what content they need for each of those channels, and be able to produce that as well.

Shaun: Fantastic advice. Thank you so much, Justin. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation and I appreciate you sharing your knowledge in what is a very niche creative industry that we all consume – millions and millions of us – but know very little about how it works in the background. For me in particular, I think your TellyCast podcast is doing that for me. So thank you again.

Justin: Thank you, Shaun. Great to spend some time with you.

Hero image by Matt Wildbore on Unsplash.

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