The Big Reveal: The revealing similarities between Public Relations and Burlesque

Photo: Christian Marquardt, Getty Images
“It’s PR that needs to be creative. It’s PR that needs to be new and different. It’s PR that needs to be original. The best way to establish a brand is to create a new category, and creating a new category requires creative thinking of the highest order.” — Al & Laura Ries
“The difference between burlesque and the newspapers is that the former never pretended to be doing a public service by exposure” — J.F Stone

I have been in the public relations game for about two years now. It was a career shift for me. I went from teaching in classrooms to the frenzied world of PR. Around the same time, I dove into the world of burlesque as a performer, and eventually, I became one of the 5 co-founders of The Secret Burlesque Society. Although public relations and burlesque appear to be worlds apart, it has come to my attention that there are a few parallels and truths that make these two worlds collide.

Public Relations + Burlesque: Misunderstood

PR is often clouded in a hall of smoke and mirrors as not many people know what public relations entails. I am either fighting off the perception that my career in PR is an endless parade of glamorous parties and VIP events or, to the other extreme, a world of spin — where I am an evil spin doctor concocting lies to manipulate an audience. Granted, these are two extreme notions perpetuated by television shows and other media. I’m sure there are very glamorous PR jobs, just as I’m sure there are a few bad apples in the bunch that spin. My PR practice has been centred around communicating the story the best way I can with the tools I have available to me; be it media relations, research or data. There are many things that go into public relations - it’s strategic, it’s creative, it’s smart and I don’t think many people realize this.

Burlesque is defined as “an absurd or comically exaggerated imitation of something, especially in a literary or dramatic work; a parody.” Though similar to PR, burlesque is often misunderstood and judged harshly based on misrepresentation in entertainment. Of course, there is also the strange relationship society has with nudity and gender roles that play a part in the judgement of burlesque but that’s for another article. Burlesque is an art form. It is a form of expression that uses the body as a medium to communicate a story. I’ve seen and performed brilliant burlesque commentary on political issues such as female empowerment, LGBQT rights and race relations. Through the use of costumes, music, and movement all of the details punctuate and a story is told, an opinion expressed, commentary made — and it is always the hope of the performer to connect with the audience in this way.

Connect With Your Audience

PR is a game of connection. We connect the media to the story and the audience to the client. We are in the business of relationships so its vital to make genuine connections with the client and the audience. Knowing who the intended audience is and being able to speak their language adds value to what we do and makes our job easier. As consumers today are more media savvy and critical of the millions of daily messages they receive, it is important for PR practitioners to be able to connect with the audience. We don’t want to speak at them, but with them. Being successful in making these connections, provides PR pros with a way to establish a dialogue with the audience — and hopefully, allow us to nurture continuing relationships with them.

In burlesque the audience is always top of mind. Nothing is worse than doing a reveal and having the audience remain silent (it’s happened and it’s terrible). While most cabaret hosts know enough to teach the audience how to be a burlesque audience (that is, hoot ‘n holler if you like what you see), it is still so vital for the performer to connect with the audience from the get-go. From the very first shimmy onto the stage the performer needs to have the audience on her/his side. Once that connection happens magic can commence. The audience is invested in the story and the performer is compelled to deliver her best. Establishing a connection with the audience is what transforms a good burlesque performance into a memorable one.

Tell a Great Story

In PR we need to be able to tell a great story. We find the right angles, figure out what makes the story interesting and consider how the audience can relate. One of the most important reasons why a well crafted story is pivotal to success is because we need to ensure we are prepared for the sometimes difficult, but essential, parts of the PR practice — the pitch. Assignment editors do not have much time. They are inundated with pitches on the daily and know within seconds whether a story is news-worthy or not. In pitching PR practitioners only have a few minutes to excite the editor with the story — so it better be good. Knowing how to frame a story and how to deliver a thoughtful pitch helps to separate one news release from the rest but even so, success always begins with a great story.

In the fall I attended a burlesque workshop taught by Toronto based burlesque performer, James and the Giant Pastie. The workshop was on storytelling and the importance of creating a good story for a routine. James talked about establishing the character, rising into conflict and finally, finding a resolution in the end. It didn’t surprise me to learn that James studied English literature in University. His perspective on storytelling resonated with me. Upon reflection of some of my favourite performances it has always been the story that has kept me engaged. For example, James has a number where he begins as a frog prince. Midway in the routine he receives a kiss from a lucky audience member (audience engagement — see above!) and from there the frog prince magically turns into Prince, his funky purple majesty. Where a green lilypad was transformed into a purple cape. To top it off the routine was set to Prince’s classic song “Kiss”. It was a brilliant, well thought out number and a prime example of great story telling.

Stay Curious

Staying current to what’s going on in the world is vital in public relations. Breaking news on the other side of the world can have a ripple effect and have an impact closer to home. The Butterfly Effect is real and it can cause unwanted consequences if you are not prepared. Being curious as to what is happening in my local community, city, country and world has been beneficial in many regards. From the diverse bits of information I learn, to the different points of views I am exposed to — I am confident that the knowledge I acquire will somehow be used in the future. It’s like a knowledge bank that I can dip into when thinking of a pitch or story or how my client is affected.

In another burlesque workshop, NYC based performer, Tigger, encouraged us to stay curious about the world we live in: to indulge in fine art, get inspired by nature, visit museums, and engage with our surroundings. He argued that curiosity is key in conceptualizing and developing a solid burlesque number. It is curiosity that compels us to know more about the world, to find interesting stories, new music or costumes ideas. It is in the richness in knowledge, that only curiosity can bring that can turn an idea into wonderful number.

The similarities between my professional life and my showgirl life shocked me at first but makes absolute sense now. Being able to draw these parallels have made me more cognizant of my approach, in my public relations practice and burlesque life - making me better at what I do in both realms. I am excited to see if more parallels can be drawn from these two seemingly opposite worlds. What skills I develop in tandem and what tricks I can keep up my sleeve — however as any PR professional and burlesque performer would do, I’m saving it all for my final reveal.