Bold, brave and undeniably Brisbane: How Brisbane Festival defined a pandemic to stage a successful and safe event

4 minutes read

Belinda Seeney

Content Director

Brisbane Festival faced the impossible task of staging an international arts festival when borders – both national and international – were closed, when theatres and performance venues were dark and when artists were unable to rehearse and collaborate.

It was the first week of January and fresh from the festive break, Aruga dived straight into preparing PR and communications strategy for the most anticipated event in Queensland’s arts and entertainment calendar: Brisbane Festival.

Within two months, the Festival’s program was finalised, key messages were crafted, PR timelines were planned and publicity KPIs were set. We were ready to rock!

What’s that they say about “best-laid plans”?

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and everything changed.

Aruga loves a challenge so when Brisbane Festival Artistic Director Louise Bezzina declared no pandemic was going to rain on her inaugural parade, we donned our face masks, double-pumped our hand sanitiser and – remotely – got to work.

Over a matter of weeks, Brisbane Festival pulled together an entirely new, Boldly Brisbane program that was reflective of and reimagined for these very strange times.

Aruga pivoted and pirouetted alongside the Festival team to deliver and promote what would be Queensland’s first major event since the pandemic’s outbreak.

The 2020 Festival celebrated the reawakening of the city after a difficult and demanding period of isolation, focusing on homegrown heroes, local luminaries and exceptional experiences taking place across the city. In 2020, the city of Brisbane WAS the blockbuster.

From 4 – 26 September, the ambitious Festival staged 573 performances across 244 locations; programmed 120 events, 101 of which were free; commissioned 28 brand-new works; performed in each of the city’s 190 suburbs; and provided employment for a staggering 1002 local artists and arts workers.

With 84 per cent of the program free and with the Festival operating to a strict COVID Safe plan, Brisbane Festival’s 2020 goals were to provide a beacon of hope to people and to fill the city with art, music and joy.

The challenge for Aruga as a PR agency was how to gauge and report public sentiment, a more difficult measure of success than simply collating box office figures, visitor nights and audience numbers.

Aruga’s PR strategy moved away from driving ticket sales and drawing crowds to focus on audience awareness, engagement and confidence in Brisbane Festival.

Aruga developed a comprehensive yet flexible media strategy to drive awareness of program elements through targeted pitching of events and artists, exclusive media opportunities, tailored angles and fresh content.

The laser-focused media approach delivered unequivocal success with Brisbane Festival achieving more than 2,000 media clips with an ASR value of $9.75M and a potential audience reach of 60.67M.

We also trained the spotlight on local artists with our team of copywriters and journalists developing 20 Boldly Brisbane Artist profiles to highlight the work of trailblazing creatives engaged with Brisbane Festival in 2020.

The ability to engage reviewers as well as interstate media through traditional famil programs was impeded by a reduced budget, border closures and ongoing travel restrictions.

Undefeated, Aruga reprioritised its key famil targets, engaging local journalists and critics with significant reach across the metropolitan and COVID-friendly drive markets and with the potential for national syndication.

This recalibration hit the mark and Aruga coordinated three media famils with Queensland-based journalists, resulting in 18 print and online editorial clippings – many reaching a national audience – with an ASR value of $3.6M.

We knew a key challenge would be reassuring people Brisbane Festival was a COVID Safe event so Aruga worked closely with the Festival team to develop a communications plan and key messages that reinforced the Festival’s commitment to safety and wellbeing.

We also mapped scenarios, workshopped potential issues and trained spokespeople in effective media interviews in preparation for anything the pandemic threw our way.

The triumphant results – in keeping with this topsy-turvy time – were qualitative, rather than quantitative: an engaged and entertained audience, a supportive and confident city and a ground-breaking Festival that successfully brokered social connection amid physical distance.

Brisbane Festival ran from 4 – 26 September 2020. Brisbane PR agency Aruga has proudly partnered with the Festival since 2018 to deliver strategy, events PR, media relations, crisis communications and media training.

Say hello and let us help you develop and deliver a customised PR strategy to get your party started!

Belinda Seeney

Content Director

Belinda Seeney is Aruga’s Director of Content and a Walkley Award-winning print and digital journalist with more than 20 years’ experience in community, regional and metropolitan newspapers, magazines and websites.