Amid ‘Reopening’ Challenges, Communications-Savvy A&E Brands Have Chance to Emerge Stronger Than Ever

As states across the country discuss when and how to safely lift COVID-19 restrictions, arts and entertainment brands are facing some of the most unique scenario mapping challenges of any industry. Conceived largely on the premise of gathering together as a community, theaters, live touring events, museums, zoos and other entertainment entities are weighing the relative pros and cons of a dizzying array of contingencies for reopening within the “new norm” of capacity caps and restricted contact.

While programmers grapple with everything from scaling back seasons and switching venues, to quarantining performers and conducting patron temperature checks at the door, intentional communications strategizing is as essential as operational planning. With so much more at stake than simply emerging from the current threat, arts and entertainment organizations have the opportunity to draw upon the lessons learned and innovations created during shelter-in-place to rebuild a more sustainable, inclusive and powerful presence for the future.

Find synergies between digital engagement and IRL (in real life) experiences. With their doors shuttered and marquees dark, the arts and entertainment community has been at the forefront of engaging and inspiring the public through digital content. Audiences, both existing and new, have become more deeply and authentically connected with institutions through social media campaigns, live streams, virtual tours, on-line chats with directors, even artificial reality.

Millions engaged with Shedd Aquarium as their penguins explored the closed building, went “Beyond the Glass” to experience the world-famous Mona Lisa at The Louvre, or streamed “Kinky Boots” and “King Lear” on BroadwayHD. When the Chicago area’s McAninch Arts Center had to cancel its spring programming due to COVID-19, the theater collaborated with Columbia Artists to broadcast a free performance of Japan’s acclaimed Drum Tao Taiko Drummers via Facebook Live.

Many family-focused entertainment and cultural institutions have produced digital content to meet the needs of families challenged with providing at-home educational and recreational activities for children. Among Motion’s clients, Feld Entertainment, producer of Disney On Ice, offers kid-friendly, how-to videos for character-themed recipes and at-home workouts, while Medieval Times launched a Bring the Castle Home! landing page filled with games, coloring sheets, educational worksheets and grade-appropriate lesson plans for its youngest fans.

Stripped of the ability to flip a switch and instantaneously return to the pre-COVID-19 days of jam-packed auditoriums and concert halls, retaining digital engagement will be key to success during reopening and beyond. From relying on live streams to enhance event inclusivity and revenue, to crafting pre- and post-visit messaging into downloadable materials, digital engagement across all platforms needs to become an extension of patrons’ onsite experience.

Continue to cultivate new audiences. Many digitally-savvy arts and entertainment institutions dramatically broadened their sphere of influence during shelter-in-place. Classical music concerts that might have sold 200 tickets pre-COVID-19 have been drawing tens of thousands of viewers for live streams. As states and communities reopen, there’s an opportunity to expand these audience-building tactics into real-life scenarios. Outreach initiatives that bring programming to groups less likely to attend shows or visit museums can serve not only as a means to audience expansion, but also as a creative solution for organizations looking for venues that facilitate social distancing.

Retain community trust. Communicate frequently and transparently. Arts and entertainment organizations, which historically have been viewed among the most trusted intuitions in their communities, will be making a lot of difficult decisions in coming weeks. Balancing a sincere desire to serve patrons and the broader community with business realities, it’s unlikely all of these decisions will be popular. Transparency in explaining potentially unpopular moves, such as scaled-back seasons or increased ticket prices, and laying out steps being taken by the organization to mitigate their impact, will be essential.

Frequent and transparent communication will also be key in reassuring understandably skittish external and internal audiences of the safety of returning to reopened venues. Organizations will need to continually update and reinforce messaging regarding their health and safety protocols through everything from media relations and advertising to employee website portals, subscriber e-blasts and onsite signage.