Nuala Giblin is a television press officer with many years experience on some of our most iconic TV shows, including ITV’s popular police series, ‘The Bill’. Nuala kindly agreed to tell us her story of dealing with drama, drama queens and death:
My first job in telly was a fluke, as so many things are in this unpredictable industry. I was recruited as a temporary Viewer Liaison Officer at the brand new satellite channel UK Gold. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Not only a job in television but here was a channel devoted to TV golden oldies, so at last my knowledge of TV, old and new, would finally come into its own. And it did. After several months of listening to Dr Who fans moaning about the show being re-edited, to make room for commercial breaks, I was hired permanently and then promoted to Senior Press Officer. I worked on gems such as Porridge, Fawlty Towers, Top of the Pops and even Eldorado. I was publicising these shows but I was also convincing the great British public that these were not cheap repeats, but treasures from TV’s past and well worth paying for. Thus the Press Office was particularly proactive – writing press releases, looking for angles e.g. isn’t that Jeff Stewart (PC Hollis) from The Bill prancing around as a dancer from Top of the Pops circa 1983?
Liaising and lunching (contacts are crucial in this business) with various publications and TV shows, contacting agents to see if a star would do interviews (for a fee) to promote a show, devising press campaigns which included launches, parties or eye catching gimmicks e.g. a glossy press pack accompanied by a miniature bottle of Vodka for Minder. UK Gold was an instant success which meant that our budgets grew. We hired Wembley Stadium for the day to promote old editions of Match of Day. Celebs kicking a ball about included Chris Evans and Geoff Hurst, with Jimmy Hill commentating. Dallas’s Charlene Tilton (Lucy) came over on a press trip as did Dynasty’s John James (Jeff). And Dennis Waterman and John Thaw reunited for an exclusive photo shoot to promote The Sweeney.
Good pictures are key to a successful campaign. On the Bill I only used three or four photographers so that the cast and crew were comfortable with them. These chosen few knew exactly what I needed from the brief and also knew how not to get in the way of filming. When you couldn’t get a feature, the use of an episodic picture was the next best thing in a TV mag. And I did set up the odd photo shoot for events such as Christmas, new cast members and a major storyline to use not only in a press pack but also, hopefully, a feature! So any would-be snappers out there give the Press Office a call and try to get a meeting so that you can show them your portfolio.
As with so many jobs in TV it was not what you knew but who you knew. UK Gold showed old episodes of The Bill and I knew the Press Officer quite well. So when she said she was leaving I thought I would apply and was literally dumbstruck when I got the job. This was grown up television. Unlike UK Gold’s stars, who were predominantly long gone, these were living breathing actors. And I was based in a proper TV studio – admittedly a shabby converted warehouse in South London. Sun Hill nick was minutes away from my office. It was access all areas when it came to both the sets and the stars. And I had a new title – I was now a Publicist which is the term used for those PR’s attached to a TV or film unit.
When I joined the show, The Bill had already been on air 12 years and was showing no signs of slowing down. But although the viewing figures remained impressive – between 13 and 14 million per show – The Bill was always behind Coronation Street and EastEnders in terms of press coverage. Restricted by its police setting, sensationalism was rarely on the agenda. So my proactive background proved perfect for the role. I just had to shout louder to get attention. Strong stories combined with notable guest stars always proved attractive to the press. Roger Daltry, Anita Dobson, Hugh Laure, Leslie Grantham, Denise Van Outen – were just a few who trod those Sun Hill streets.
Admittedly core cast members were sometimes miffed at the press inches garnered by such luminaries but at least it kept the show fresh as well as helping to secure its future.
And if there was a major storyline e.g. an explosion, death or controversial subject matter, we pulled out all the stops – glossy press packs featuring a press release, story synopsis and interviews. DVDs of the episode were sent to key journalists and sometimes an episode warranted a press screening in a fancy venue in Central London.
The Bill was made by Pearson Television (as it was called at that time) and I liaised closely with Carlton TV which was the London ITV franchise holder, responsible for overseeing the show. I spent a lot of time ensuring that The Bill got its fair share of attention from ITV in terms of trailers and monetary contributions to press activities.
Good relationships with both cast and crew are crucial to the success of a TV press office. So I was as familiar with the cone men – who literally coned off streets for filming – as the stars of the show. So when I appeared on set with a film crew or a journalist, the Director etc. knew in advance and was happy to accommodate us. Although there were times when a shoot wasn’t going well or the cast was having a bad day, so best to quietly retreat.
Challenges in a press role come thick and fast. From temperamental talent – ‘I don’t want to do that interview’. Or, ‘I thought what I said was off the record, so why have they misquoted me?’ To demanding producers – ‘why so little coverage or do you think appearing in that publication is appropriate for a show such as ours.’ Or sneaky journalists. ‘If so and so does an interview with us we can set the record straight’. Yeah right, not before you stick the knife in. So, in other words, it’s a constant balancing act which you don’t always get right. So you have to be strong enough to live with the consequences.
Of course, working on a long running TV show means that sometimes you have to do a spot of damage limitation when the artistes’ personal lives becomes the story rather than
the show. On The Bill I had to deal with adultery, wife beating, sado masochism and court appearances. But the hardest thing I have ever had to face was when actor Kevin Lloyd died. He had played DC Tosh Lines for a decade and was an incredibly popular character both on and off screen. But as his marriage disintegrated, his drinking increased which resulted in his inability to perform his role. After several attempts by The Bill to help, including medical intervention and rehab, Kevin was sacked. Within a week he was dead and I had to ensure that the subsequent headlines didn’t scream The Bill Kills Star. Over an entire weekend, my phone never stopped ringing and despite my own grief and tears, I had to remain professional.
Maintaining good relationships with the press proved to be key to garnering sympathetic headlines regarding this very human tragedy. And I had always been pretty honest in the past. Obviously be careful just how much you reveal but if an artiste really won’t talk to the press then offer another who will. I once wouldn’t let an actor do an interview because, as I told the journalist, you won’t like them and you’ll print that. And courtesy. Even when the answer was no I always called journalists back and was accessible and friendly. Simple as that.
I am now a freelance journalist and publicist, which gives me an insight into both sides. I have worked as a PR consultant on Neighbours as well as part of a team at a PR agency, working on Who Do You Think You Are, Pillars of the Earth and Taggart.
So having been around the block a few times, I would conclude that a thick skin, sense of humour and people skills are vital to any press role.
Being sworn at by disgruntled artistes can unfortunately all be in a day’s work. So although universities now offer courses in Public Relations, if you are not a born diplomat, you won’t last long in this business. You also need strong communication skills plus the ability to write and identify an angle that will get the press interested and flexibility. No two days are ever the same.
But at the end of the day it’s the same old story – persistence, hard work and patience really does pay off. When you secure that cover or place an interview in the requisite publication, it really is so worth it.
Thank you, Nuala and some good advice there for those photographers who’ve been asking advice on who to approach for work. Get your portfolio together and find the name of the press officer at the broadcasters and major independants. If you are keen on offering your professional photographic services within TV you might want to read this article: So What Does a TV Photographer Do