Publicizing the Arts: The Advantages of Combining a Press Release with a Web-based DIY Approach
The mainstream media’s coverage of the arts is not nearly as robust as it once was. Many artists and arts administrators know that, of course, but it still bears repeating for anyone clinging to the belief that a basic news release alone will generate much in the way of coverage.
Even in daily or weekly newspapers, where most arts stories have traditionally been concentrated, it is becoming increasingly difficult for an artist or arts group to secure any coverage beyond a calendar listing or a brief. The flashy Sunday preview is still around, at least at some papers, but competition for it is intense.
The reason for this arts-unfriendly state of affairs is hardly mysterious. Drastic cutbacks in staff have left newspapers with skeletal staffs that are often ill-equipped to cover anything well, much less the arts. And let’s face it: The arts were never a top priority for most editors to begin with, even in the best of times.
So when it comes to public relations and strategies for engaging with constituents, a rethink is in order.
In essence, artists and arts groups need to do more than send out news releases and pitch stories to reporters and editors at print publications and arts-friendly broadcast and online-only media. They must also produce their own content, making their websites their best, most powerful friend, and promote it via social media and email blasts.
They should not abandon the old-fashioned news release but, rather, revise its format so that it delivers the greatest bang for the buck. Press releases belong in the mix because, if done effectively, they will combine the basics (who, what, when, cost, etc.) with a clear route to a DIY-created package on a website that includes written content, photography, video, and audio. The online version of a newspaper or another publication can provide a link to that package as well.
By “just the basics,” incidentally, I do not mean paragraph after paragraph. I do mean something like the example below, which announces a recent Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at Ravinia:
TITLE: CSO: James Conlon “Italian” Symphony
WHO/WHAT: Under guest conductor James Conlon’s direction, the CSO will perform Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. Ray Chen will solo in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Soprano Marisol Montalvo will be featured in Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Mozart’s “L’amerò, sarò costante” for soprano and violin from Il rè pastore.
WHERE: Ravinia Festival, 200 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park, IL
WHEN: 8 p.m. July 28
COST: $50/$25; lawn seats $10
The “Why Go?” section is the most crucial component. It would plug the event in two or three sentences AND feature a link to a preview- or profile-like article on your website.
As luck would have it, a recent example in the “Sounds & Stories” section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s website nicely illustrates the DIY approach advocated in this post. In it, violinist Ray Chen is profiled in advance of his July 28, 2017 performance with the CSO of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto at Ravinia. The writing could have simply regurgitated the kind of basic biographical info found in most orchestras’ programs, which is more than a little boring and predictable. Instead, it does a great job of introducing Chen the person and Chen the artist:
The photograph of Chen, taken in front of a train, underscores the whirlwind nature of his constant touring. A YouTube video and several audio-only excerpts accommodate those listeners who want to sample the sound of his artistry and/or get a better sense of Chen the performer. Finally, “Sounds & Stories” makes it easy to spread the word of Chen’s performance via Facebook and Twitter.
At this point, one might take a hard look at this scenario and ask a couple of questions.
Any concert is competing with a slew of other entertainment options, so many potential attendees of the Chen/CSO performance probably waited until close to the last minute to decide whether they’d attend or not. Did an appreciable number of undecided-until-the-last-minute patrons go to the Chen/CSO concert, having found the “Sounds & Stories” package a principal motivator?
Or did most of them, despite liking said package, decide to stay home anyway, because they concluded that an evening at Ravinia was just too inconvenient or taxing. However promising an evening with Ray and the band might look, it could be that a Netflix show will always emerge as the victorious alternative. “Just get home at a decent hour,” the show seems to say. “In return, you’ll enjoy the guilty pleasures of binge-watching episode after episode as you sit on your comfortable couch.”
Absent sophisticated polling, of course, only God really knows what goes down in such situations.
That said, the Chen/CSO package in “Sounds & Stories” employs many PR tools, from the traditional (text and photography) to the less traditional (video and audio). Would not making use of these tools have increased the likelihood of attendance among fans who were originally sitting on the fence? I think not.
Also, however uncertain strategies may be for putting butts in seats, the reality is the reality and, as noted earlier, newspapers are in decline and a lot less likely to devote meaningful resources to arts coverage. By “meaningful,” I mean full-time reporters bolstered by knowledgeable editors and by such other support personnel as photographers and web developers.
In such a situation, artists and arts groups have little choice but to find (and then refine) ways to augment any coverage they generate in more traditional media outlets.
A “Sounds & Stories”-like segment has several other benefits beyond public relations:
- It provides artists/arts groups one more way to engage with constituents. This is crucial. The more engaged constituents are, the more likely they’ll be to attend events and make donations.
- It provides content that print and online media can use if they cover your event. Yes, it’s possible that a reporter would come up with this content on her own, but it’s more likely she lacks the time, skill or inclination to do so.
- It doesn’t know the space limitations of a print publication, and there’s no limit on the number of times a different story can appear online.
- It isn’t subject to the whims of an editor, who may decide to give another artist/arts group greater play in his publication.
- It can serve such diverse purposes as previewing events; profiling/introducing artists, students (from a music school); their teachers and various ensembles/programs; and reporting the news.
- Finally, it can deliver stewardship-like reports, which spell out the consequences of a donor’s gift. Increasingly, I’m told, donors are treating gifts like investments; they expect returns on these investments that are clear and known to all.
One last point: Should your arts group adopt a “Sounds & Stories”-like approach, I advocate for assembling a “team” of content providers, each of whom would bring different talents to the table. The reason: While there’s a temptation to save costs by dumping multiple responsibilities on one person, one person may not be equally talented in all areas.
Or to put it more bluntly, resolve to do this right or don’t do it. There is no point in cutting corners if you want to do something bold and beneficial in response to real-world realities.
Yes, financing a “Sounds & Stories”-like segment will be a challenge. But this can be overcome with a little creativity. For example, if you’ve got the right board in place, one whose members understand that their primary responsibility is to give and get money, you can likely underwrite a team of temporary specialists who are brought together on a per-project basis, rather than pinning your hopes on a merely competent jack-of-all-trades.
And sometimes, you can get a board member or one of her friends to join a digital media team as an unpaid member. This can amount to quite an in-kind donation.