When Lin-Manuel Miranda – the composer of Hamilton – visited London last week, I immediately began to reflect on my recent dissertation – an exploration of Hamilton as a cultural phenomenon. Having just started a job in tech PR, I was surprised by how much I found the concepts of Miranda’s production and PR to overlap.
Hamilton is the hip-hop musical phenomenon dominating the musical theatre scene. It’s won eleven Tonys, a Grammy, seven Oliviers and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But what can we take away from the show as PR professionals?
The musical unveils the story of Alexander Hamilton, spanning from 1776 after he arrived in New York City, through the American Revolution all the way to his death in 1802, it could have been an excruciatingly boring history lesson. Instead, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda turned it into something spectacular – schooling us all in communications.
“Passionately smashin’ every expectation” (-My Shot)
Hamilton’s unique concept means not only is the show about revolution, it is a revolution. One day Miranda decided that Hamilton – the guy from the history books with powdered hair and tights – was ‘so gangsta.’ Then, he built a whole musical around the idea.
The ‘Cabinet Battles’ capture Miranda’s innovation perfectly; history is retold when Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton have heated debates – or rap battles – over the future of America. “Stand with me in the land of the free, pray to God we never see Hamilton’s candidacy. Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky. Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whisky…” says Jefferson. It’s ingenious having the founding fathers dressed in period clothing, rapping and using slang – and it certainly hasn’t been done before.
Similarly, communications is all about new ideas. Like the musical theatre industry, the PR industry is competitive, and the only way to stand out in a crowded market is to innovate. As PR professionals it’s our job to get our clients in the media but it’s not enough to send out a generic press release, we have to get creative. For example, taking something current, whether this is a movie premier or current affairs, then intertwining that with a story from your client, can get you noticed.
Working in harmony:
“Move as one” (-Yorktown)
During a performance, all aspects of Hamilton come together like pieces in a puzzle. The cast shift between R&B hip-hop and musical theatre, the dancing seamlessly transitions between civilian and military life, the orchestra includes a pop rhythm section alongside a string quartet and there is not one, but two revolving floors.
As an audience member, it’s easy to forget how much work goes into a production like this because everything’s so slick. But these performances don’t just happen, they are a by-product of countless rehearsals and ongoing activities on and off stage. Likewise, coverage is the by-product of a whole series of tasks PR’s undertake.
Agencies are often judged on the coverage they secure, but what goes on behind that is a well-oiled machine – just like Hamilton. First PR’s have to come up with an (innovative) idea, then they have to identify the desired audience, research suitable publications, create press lists, pitch to journalists, draft the article, get approval from the client and finally wait for it to appear. The Hamilton cast might sing 20,520 words over the course of a show, but PR professionals type that many in their emails.
“I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me” (-The Room Where it Happens)
Every company needs a clear idea of what they want to be known for, which is why brand strategy is the foundation of any successful PR and marketing programme. Hamilton is no different and aside from being a great piece of theatre, it carries explicit cultural messages too. If you’ve not seen the show you might not know the cast look anything like their historical counterparts – they are totally ethnically diverse. Of the original Broadway production it was said to be the “story of America then, told by America now.”
The musical promotes acceptance of all cultures outlining that Hamilton was “an immigrant coming up from the bottom”, “immigrants get the job done” and “we’ll never be free until we end slavery”. It’s also not a coincidence that hip-hop is a genre born from raw struggle. Hamilton gives a voice to minorities which musicals are not traditionally known for.
Hamilton’s messaging doesn’t stop at its performances; Miranda and the performers promote equality on social media, the production raised money for a suffering Puerto Rico and the Broadway cast even called out VP Mike Pence at curtain call declaring that “we, sir, are the diverse America who is alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us” – the definition of ‘practice what you preach.’
When fans watch Hamilton they don’t just feel they are going to see a show, they feel part of a movement. Businesses should aim to create something similar whereby they are known for more than just a product or service, this could be anything from having an expertise in a certain field or serving a wider social purpose. In order to communicate the desired ethos of your company, clear and consistent messages must underpin everything you do.
So, Hamilton has more in common with PR than you might have originally thought – it is innovative, it only works when all elements are integrated, and messaging is at its heart. Who knew?
Stacey is a Durham University Education and English graduate now working as a Junior Account Executive for the Technology PR team at Aspectus Group.