A Groundbreaking Oscar Nomination Provides 3 Lessons for PR Professionals

The 95th Academy Awards are this Sunday, March 12. While the Oscars are often seen as a celebration of the best artistic achievements in movies, the nominations are earned through well-financed and highly strategic public relations campaigns. Movie studios spend millions on industry parties and events, screenings, media appearances and advertising campaigns to generate buzz for their stars and vault them to the top of Academy voters’ minds. These campaigns can be expensive, but they can also pay off: it was estimated that Apple spent more than $10 million on the campaign for its small-budget drama CODA, but the film went on to win Best Picture last year. 

This typical PR campaign model was shattered in January when Andrea Riseborough earned a shocking Best Actress nomination for her role in To Leslie, a film that made less than $30,000 at the box office. The team behind that film and Riseborough’s campaign kicked off a grassroots effort just weeks before the nominations were announced and managed to land her a coveted nomination despite spending almost no money on their campaign. 

As a PR professional I always find it instructive to look beyond my own niche areas for case studies and lessons from other areas. The Riseborough Oscar nomination is a high-profile example of a successful, innovative PR campaign, and provides some fascinating takeaways for PR efforts beyond Hollywood. 

3 Lessons for PR Professionals  

  1. Direct Your Message to Hyper-Specific Targets Who Matter Most 

Oscar campaigns typically blanket all of Los Angeles with promotion for their films. These efforts generate needed awareness but are also the equivalent of a social media campaign with an untargeted audience: You are spending a lot of money reaching people who you don’t necessarily care about reaching. 

The Riseborough campaign team, with limited time and resources, took on a more targeted approach. Just 1,336 actors vote for Best Actress, and it is estimated Riseborough would have only needed roughly 200 votes to secure a nomination. So Riseborough and her team called every actor they knew and asked them to watch the movie. This outreach was made more effective by the network effects of the actors they contacted: When Kate Winslet promotes your movie, it has a lot more sway with other voters. 

These tweaks to the typical campaign model were born of necessity but were highly effective. Riseborough’s team targeted the specific audience they needed and prioritized the most influential members of that audience. It is a powerful lesson for other PR campaigns looking to make an impact on a tight budget. 

  1. Focus Your Efforts on Meaningful Time Frames 

“Momentum” is an amorphous concept in communications campaigns, the idea being that a steady stream of victories can help a campaign reach its ultimate goal. Rather than spend months building awareness and goodwill around To Leslie, though, Riseborough’s team narrowed its campaign to the weeks-long voting window for the Academy Awards. Nobody saw the film in theaters upon its release in October, but it didn’t matter: The PR effort was accelerated when it mattered most. 

This lesson can be carried over to other PR campaigns around specific dates, such as client events. Your audience is busy and inundated with information, and sometimes the best way to get their attention is to reach them at the moment they need to make a decision. 

  1. Ensure You Have a Quality Product 

Amid the hoopla around Riseborough’s ingenious campaign, it should not go unsaid that it would not have worked if Riseborough did not deliver an outstanding performance in To Leslie. Riseborough and her team could have screened the film for every actor in Hollywood, but if the performance did not resonate the campaign would have gone nowhere. 

It’s an important lesson for PR professionals. PR teams rightfully spend a lot of time strategizing about the most effective tactics, processes and messages for their campaigns. But a quality product is necessary alongside even the most flawlessly planned campaign. Working with clients to discuss what content will deliver the best results is an important part of any well-run PR campaign. 

A Potential Case Study — With Limitations 

To Leslie’s backers had some big advantages that might not be replicable — we can’t all be friends with Gwyneth Paltrow. But influential friends aside, the campaign had a microscopic budget, and the nomination points to a potential low-cost path for more independent, small-budget campaigns to succeed while facing off against more expensive studio efforts.  

Some have identified an ethical ickiness to the deployment of powerful connections, as two Black actresses who were leading contenders for months, Danielle Deadwyler and Viola Davis, were shut out. The Academy’s shortcomings in diversity and representation are a longstanding issue, but one point worth making is that in the history of systemic disadvantages, one of them has been financial. While Davis and Deadwyler’s incredible performances were both backed by expensive campaigns from major film studios, few actors and directors of color have been, historically. 

ABCDE Model 

The Riseborough campaign provides a lesson all PR professionals would be wise to remember: Strong audience analysis, targeted marketing and a quality product can go a long way, even on a limited communications budget. The campaign is closely aligned with The Bliss Group’s proprietary “ABCDE Model” for building and sharing strong narratives, which addresses additional dimensions worth mentioning. 

Riseborough’s team knew precisely who their target audience was (the acting branch of the Academy) and what behavior they wanted to enact (a vote during the narrow Academy voting window). The promise of the content was driven by Riseborough’s evocative performance, and the delivery of that content was timed to perfection, as outreach went to the most powerful influencers just before voting began. 

The glamour of Hollywood often feels like it exists on another planet, but with these PR campaigns fighting for audience attention and effective calls to action, the stars are just like us. 

By Jake Skubish

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