Beyond Spin: PR Firms on How To Get Press in the Art World

Nov 16, 2016

Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Along the same lines, circus founder P.T. Barnum said, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” While these might both be debatable, they underscore the importance of creating some buzz. Whether you work for a museum or gallery, whether you’re a collector or an artist yourself, discovering how to generate the right conversations about what you do can be tricky. It requires relationships with the media and a network of other people interested in your activities. Plus, you’ll need to determine just how to speak about what you’re doing and the message you’re trying to convey.

Public relations (PR) and marketing firms deliver all this and more, tailored to your business, your institution, or your own needs. No matter how large or small your project, an outside consultant’s voice can always open up new perspectives on your work and future possibilities. We spoke to communications professionals about the benefits of using their services. Whether you’re seeking a campaign that’ll go viral or a way to connect with other people in the art world, they’ve got you covered.

Beyond Art Exhibition Announcements

PR and marketing benefits for galleries and institutions might seem obvious: they host exhibitions and consultants pitch the media to coordinate related press. In reality, communications professionals can provide many more services, and collectors can benefit as well. “The moment that collectors tend to most benefit from a PR service is when they want to be more public about their collection,” says Chloe Kinsman, a Director at Pelham Communications in London. “For example, when they’re working with a museum, collaborating on an exhibition of their works, extending their philanthropic activities by launching a foundation.” She stresses that Pelham is a full-service communications agency—she and her colleagues help clients with events, networking, media relations, and their digital presence. They can set up online archives for collections as well. If a collector is launching a foundation, Kinsman says her work is “almost like brand strategy. It’s about consistency of messaging, developing a mission statement and a language to describe what they’re setting out to achieve.”

Amani Olu, of Olu & Company, speaks about how he helped a collector (whose name he kept private) who was bringing work to auction at Bloomsbury London and wanted to secure press in the United States. The collector owned nearly 700 photographs taken by pioneering NASA astronauts when they went into space. Olu placed stories in The New York Times, The New Yorker, National Geographic, The Washington Post, and other elite publications. Nevertheless, he, too, stresses that his work extends beyond these articles. “We can help write about the collection,” he says. “We can look at images. I’m a curator, and that’s how I started. I can advise on an edit of those works that makes sense for the market. We can archive the works, scan, write descriptions, make a micro website of the works.” It just depends on what the collector wants.

Tell Me More About Digital Services...

The digital realm can be daunting. Snapchat! Instagram! Twitter! So many platforms, so many branding opportunities, so many possible pitfalls. Relinquish the headache and turn the channels over to the pros. “One of the most important aspects of the way the landscape is changing is the increased importance of both social media and an online or digital presence,” asserts Kinsman. Website design and content production also fall within Kinsman’s purview. If you want some help creating an online identity for your collection / foundation / brand, a consultant can help at every step of the way.

Building a Trusting Relationship for Long Term Success

Like finding a therapist, the search for a publicist is also about finding a good match. “There has to be a strong rapport if you’re going to be in this relationship of trust,” says Kinsman. “That’s incredibly important when you’re helping someone with aspects of their communications. You are really representing them.” Kinsman emphasizes the importance of talking over long-term goals and building toward the future. She aims to “really get under the skin of what someone wants to achieve.”

Micaela Martegani, Founder and Director of non-profit art and education organization MORE ART, speaks about what led her to work with Olu & Company. “We realized that if you really want to get a message out and make it cohesive, it’s sometimes important to have someone who’s an expert in the business,” she says. At the time, the organization was working on a site-specific public art project with artist Andres Serrano that addressed homelessness and poverty in New York City. Olu acted as a sounding board as MORE ART ran through different ideas. For another, more unorthodox project about housing issues in the New York City, Olu was able to find new language to reach a broader audience, extending the message to communities interested in the topic from a more political and social justice angle.

Dr. Loretta Würtenberger, founder of The Institute for Artists’ Estates, hired Pelham Communications to conduct a campaign when she launched the organization and her new book, The Artist’s Estate: A Handbook for Artists, Executors, and Heirs. “We felt it was vital to engage an agency that would effectively increase our profile among an international audience,” she says. Pelham’s broad scope of work and clients appealed to her. The partnership was more than worth it. According to Würtenberger, “the project gained substantial global recognition in a short timeframe, with media coverage in mutually agreed key international target publications.” Pelham arranged a series of high-profile speaking opportunities and meaningful media partnerships. The Institute was off to a strong start, its message reverberating around the globe.

What Questions Should You Ask When Hiring a Firm?

On the media relations side, Olu advises clients to ask what stories a publicist is pitching and to whom. “They should see the media strategy,” he says. “The media strategy should outline the first and last name of the person they’re pitching, the title of that person, and the story that they’re pitching them.” A PR firm should be up front about when a story is “alive” or “dead”—whether or not a writer is still considering it. A client should also keep in mind that, no matter how much a PR pitches, a good story might not get traction. The services are still valuable. “They’re paying for work performed,” he says. “On the marketing side, you can give deliverables all day. We write your artist statement, your bio, your talking points. Those are things we can control. Journalists, editors, critics—they see themselves as artists. They either want [the story] or they don’t.”

Kinsman advises potential clients to really understand the services a firm offers. “A lot of PR agencies are much more about straight media and events,” she says. “360 degree agencies offer content creation and other things. I think the way things are going, it’s important to offer a diversity of services. Find out how they work—do they have in-house teams or would they work with external consultants?”

While clients shouldn’t ask about guarantees, they can certainly ask about performance markers. Olu sets objectives and reviews KPIs, or key performance indicators, with his clients. When his clients walk away, they know just what added value they’ve received from his services. Often, it’s above and beyond what they expected.

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