Social media and career development

Anyone who has ever had any kind of development – as opposed to skills – coaching is probably very familiar with a question that coaches like to ask: “What do you want to happen?”

It’s a way of getting people to cut through noise, argument, or uncertainty to enable you to focus on the outcome you want to achieve from a situation. And it is a good place to start if you are thinking about what
to do with your digital self – your personal brand, your skills or your achievements, and representing those things on social media.

Why do you need to think about an outcome? One reason is that without any kind of vision of what success looks like, or a plan to get there, people tend to fail. I should know, I have started and abandoned at least four Twitter accounts. And I’m not alone. Before Twitter stopped releasing data, it was estimated that of the almost 1bn registered Twitter accounts, less than a quarter were logged into more than once a month.

Samantha Baines is an actor and comedian who also manages social media for performers, and teaches them how to use it effectively through her company, Penguin in the Room. When asked what people should think about when they are setting out to build their social media presence, her answer was pretty much like that question coaches ask: “What do you want to do?”

In fact, it’s just the first in a series of questions she thinks people should ask themselves, including: what do you want to promote (your self, your skills, your activity in the industry), who do you want to connect with (audience, promoters, an agent) and how much effort are you willing to put into it?

Malcolm Ward is an actor and also chairman of the West & South West London branch of Equity and sees social media as a perfect way to promote yourself. However, there is a serious caveat and it’s one that was repeated by various people in the course of researching this article. Counterintuitively, performers are quite often backwards about putting themselves forward.

“Curiously, I think actors suffer from a fear of self-promotion,” says Ward. As an example, he cites himself, recalling how he was prompted by a course on digital marketing to sort out a web page. “My name has been registered as a web domain for three years. But there’s still no web page.”
So, if performers struggle to self-promote, aside of a listing on Spotlight and, perhaps, some kind of representation, does social media offer a way of finding exposure without too much risk?

Samantha Baines is a convert whose early experiments in social media resulted in a direct hit. “Four years ago I decided that I needed to be on social media,” she says. “It was a lot of trial and error but it did lead to me getting a BBC part.

“I tweeted some work I was doing and used the hashtag #VirginMediaShorts and a producer, who I had met and who started following my Twitter feed, saw it and recommended me to the casting director.”

However, Baines thought about how other performers use social media and realised that all the courses and advice out there is aimed at users who have businesses or financial goals.

“It’s really hard to promote yourself – as opposed to promoting a product. Obviously, companies such as CocaCola do marketing on social media, but it is something that performers need to think about too – because in a particular way they are a business too. I always say you can be a brilliant actor in your bedroom, but if noone knows about it then the bedroom is where you stay being a brilliant actor. You need to spread the word and social media can absolutely help with that.”

What specifically, though, can social media help with? Kevin Brady, an agent with AHA, is sceptical that it will make a lot of difference in terms of getting roles. “The industry obviously uses Twitter and the like to help it promote shows and productions but it’s not going to make that much difference to how agents or casting directors think about individuals,” he says.

“We’re not more likely to represent someone because of their social media status. The business in large part revolves around relationships between agents and casting directors.”

But he admits that there can be a use for performers, and indeed producers, to help generate interest and engagement with productions or shows. “If someone is in a show,” says Brady, “then of course there would be encouragement to use social media to promote it, obviously within particluar guidelines, and people need to think about promoting themselves.”

How does that work in practice?

Gerard Logan is an Olivier-nominated actor who tours two productions – Wilde Without the Boy, a dramatisation of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, and Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece.

“I use Twitter and Facebook a lot,” says Logan, “but they have different uses. I see Facebook as a little more cerebral and probably for an older audience. If I’m doing a Lucrece show then I think it’s a challenge to get that onto Twitter in 140 characters.”

Logan says, though, that Twitter offers the chance to really target audiences. “I was doing Wilde Without the Boy in Chichester and sales could have been better. So I decided to get in touch with the LGBT community, and used the appropriate, localised hashtags and in the end we had 20 blokes turn up for the show. They had picked up on the specific targeting and shared it with friends.

“Facebook is really useful for informing groups [Logan has separate groups for his shows] and letting them know what’s going on – and they feel like they belong, which is supportive.”

Both Logan and Samantha Baines think that Facebook works well for comedy and stand-up, especially for a regular event night.

Dave Rothnie promotes a successful comedy spot in North Wales, and he recently decided to shift venue to accommodate more people. He got the message out to his group on Facebook and the result was impressive – direct sales, connection with hundreds of followers, and dozens of likes and shares. And what, I asked Rothnie, had he wanted to happen with his Facebook activity? “Get the word out to people to come to the new venue.” Easy when you just put fingers to keyboard, really.

Social media policies at work

Members have asked Equity for advice regarding social media use relating to their work, particularly in the area of theatre productions. The union has subsequently worked with UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre to produce guidelines for social media use. Every show will have its own set of considerations that go towards shaping its individual policy. It is reasonable that one production might actively encourage company members’ own use of social media about what is happening with the show, but another might have good reasons for needing to strictly limit it, or for there to be none at all. Whether or not company members’ own use of social media is encouraged, members should not feel under any obligation to use their social media activity to promote a show they are in. Read our social media and networking guidelines, and questions for company managers.

Illustration by Tim Bradford