Thursday, 24 September 2009

UPDATED NOVEMBER 24, 2009. Twinning the PR efforts to get more coverage in dwindling media market


When newspaper readership numbers decline and television revenues shrink, it is the arts - err make that the high-end fine arts -- that takes the hit. The media, at least for now, have made coverage of the high-end arts (visual arts, opera, ballet, Canadian dance, Canadian non-fiction, poetry and Canadian theatre) a low priority. Murders, political scandals, visiting stars and movie launches win out over art show openings, book launches and new museum shows, most of the time.
Publicists must deal with the changing times -- there is no guarantee any more that a show opening or exhibition launch will attract media in large numbers. Some non-profit publicists have staged cultural events where NO ONE from the media has attended.
Two Toronto institutions - the Ontario Art Gallery and the Royal Ontario Museum - teamed up in late September to fight back. They did this by doubling down their public relations efforts.
Late last week the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum held a supersized media launch for two different, but related, photography shows. Rather than hold competing press conferences, the two institutes teamed up to hold an almost day long launch which included show tours, speeches, and a media lunch in the museum's 4-star (well price wise) restaurant.
The media event saw the launch of ROM's "Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008" and the AGO's "Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Conde Nast Years, 1923-1937". The shows run from September 26, 2009 to January 3, 2010.
The AGO and the ROM are traditionally media coverage rivals, so, this pairing is mould breaking. Stephen Weir & Associates covered the launch and has previously attended media events at individual ROM and AGO launches.
The room was packed and PR organizers believe that there were more media for this one effort then if there were two separate press events held. One senior ROM official told SW&A that the launch brought out more cameras and reporters "than we got for the Dead Sea Scrolls"
The media launch began Wednesday morning at the AGO. A wall of art experts and administrators took turns at the microphone explaining the shows, their partnerships and anything else that came to mind. There were over 50 media in the room including camera crews ranging from the CBC to Fashion TV.
Some media were given private previews of the shows before the Wednesday launch; CTV's Canada AM national breakfast show was at the ROM on Tuesday as was freelancer Peter Goddard (Toronto Star).
After the speeches the media was given a tour of the photography show then bused to the Royal Ontario Museum. A tour of their show was laid on and then over three seatings the media was treated to a lunch sponsored by the ROM's sponsor, the Bay. (SW&A did not stay for the free lunch).
The response to the supersized media launch was positive, although some media had to pass on the ROM tour and lunch because of deadline pressures. The only odd thing that caused a bit of muttering amongst members of the press corps was the ROM's decision to search their bags, briefcases and purses upon entering the building.
No one was quite sure what they were looking for since most reporters were carrying computers, video cameras, sound recording devices and even pens and paper (what do they expect!). A fashion reporter beside me came in with a can of Dog Off, legal Mace, no one cared. I wasn't challenged for bringing in a camera, a smart phone, a tape recorder and a mitt full of Sharpies.


Better resources - there was a big breakfast line-up of newsworthy speakers.
Outstanding press kits - well prepared information from both institutions as well as from curators and sponsor.
Terrific pre-launch hype - PR people from other arts institutes were invited. This was a nice gesture and it also made sure that the Zoo, the Science Centre, museums and art galleries in the city did not have competing press conferences.
Well organized - two PR departments from two different corporate cultures made sure that the media got to interview the people they wanted in a timely professional manner.


- What happens when one venue gets more coverage than the other (which happened with the Star spending most of its lineage on the AGO).
- Will the public buy into this? There wasn't a single price for both venues, instead each instution gave a 20% discount if you showed a used ticket from the other show. buying tickets to both buildings, There is a financial reason for consumers to see two different but similiar shows but it takes some work on the part of the consumer. Will the public buy into seeing both exhibitions or will one or both of the institutes loose at the gate?
- What will happen if the media like one exhibition and hate the other? Now if the media is glowing for both shows, both institutions win, but what if the media recommend one venue over another? i.e. "If you have only one Saturday to look at art, make sure you visit the ROM and give AGO a pass (or vice-versa)."
It is all about bums in seats and people through turnstiles. As Peter Ross, Marketing Director at the McMichael Canadian Art Institute often says "if there is outstanding PR coverage and it doesn't help drive numbers then is it really outstanding PR?"
Ross, as other non-profit cultural VPs know there, are so many other factors involved in getting people motivated to see an art show. Price. Road Traffic. Competition. Weather. Age of our audience.
Did combining PR forces work with the AGO and ROM? Don't touch that dial ... we will see.
And this just in - William Thorsell, the CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum is retiring. Toronto Star entertainment columnist Martin Knelman (who attended the AGO portion of the launch) reported his retirement in a story which came out two days after the joint press conference. It was a nice touch on the part of both Knelman and Thorsell to not publicize the retirement during the launch ... the two men gave the show opening a chance to gain publicity before releasing a story that would have stolen inches and minutes.


When the audience disappears and the accompanying drought of advertising dollars rolls through the CEO's office, it doesn't take long for the cutbacks begin. In Toronto there has been a significant reduction in locally produced television news programming. Radio stations have laid off reporters and trimmed on air staff. All four newspapers have laid off writers and photographers and reduced the size of their product. Metro News laid off most of its staff (and replaced it with interns and rookies), National Post has cancelled its Monday edition and the Star has shrunk its page count and scrunched sections together. The Globe has rolled much of its book and publishing content over to the web. The Sun has a new publisher (Mike Power, former head of advertising), a new design and a smaller metric page size.
The culture industry continues to advertise heavily in the traditional media while the movie, music and book industries' dollars have long ago migrated to the Net, Social Media and Outdoor Media. Despite the Arts support of the media, the editorial coverage continues to zero in on the art forms - contemporary music, films and books - which no longer support the very media that covers them.
Publishers/Station Managers are aware of what is happening -- their "beat" decisions are made to keep their companies operating and are not meant as a swipe towards Canada's long established cultural institutions. Besides art galleries have similar problems. Gallery and Museum visitors are getting older and coming less frequently (not talking about popular but revenue challenged school programmes). Most institutions guard their stats, but, for galleries there is about a 7-year gap for the average visitor in terms of when they revisited a gallery. There is a hard core group that will go to all the galleries and see all the new exhibitions but that is a small crowd that you don't even really have to advertise to(same with gallery/museum members) so the PR and marketing is aimed at motivating that very small sliver of the numbers' pie who will spend the money and make the time to come out and see the show.
UPDATE: With the King Tut opening behind them, PR professionals at the AGO had time to reflect on the success of the joint AGO/ROM launch. On November 24th I had a chance to talk to one of the AGO's publicity team.
"It was a great success," said the AGO's Antonietta Mirabelli. "We feel we got more coverage together than if we went it alone - and that coverage has staying power. We are still getting coverage, we had a double page spread yesterday, months after the show opened. We did offer a 20% discount (for people showing a ROM ticket) and the return rate was strong, so, we knew people were seeing both shows. We went together on ad buys so there were savings there, and, I did enjoy working with my counterparts at the ROM."

Would she do it again? "In a heartbeat."

CUTLINES: Top: portrait of Katharine Hepburn hangs in the AGO exhibition Edward Steichen: In High Fashion
Second from Top: Entrance to the Royal Ontario Museum has a large sign advertising the Vanity Fair portrait exhibition.
Second from Bottom: Every seat taken at the joint AGO/ROM media launch of two celeb portrait exhibitions.
Bottom: A rare sight indeed. CEO from the AGO (left - Matthew Teitelbaum) and ROM (second from left, William Thorsell) share the stage at a September joint media launch.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Playing to the High Flying Social Media Card

World's Biggest Commercial Airplane Lands in Toronto and the Airport Invites the Local Plane Spotters to Join In
Photos by George Socka. (High rez available)
[DRAFT - Still have to Proof]
Newspaper readership is shrinking. Papers are closing. Reporters are losing jobs. Television stations don't have loyal viewers anymore. Tweens prefer watching downloaded programming on their computers to sitting in front of the tube (and thanks to flat panel technology, the cathode ray tube is the 21st century's first very first techno-dodobird).
Whats a publicist to do? Can't get items in the press because there is no room and all the writers you know have already sent you their resumes. And, if you do get an item in, will there be anybody reading, watching or listening to your bumpf?
Go to most client meetings and you will hear these two words - Social Media - before the doughnuts are trotted out.
Everyone, from non-profits to major corporations see Social Media as the PR white knight that will save them from the free-falling media readership / viewership / listenership numbers.
Social Media is a broad term which refers to the many NEW ways that people communicate, unfettered by ads and snake-oil, on the web. Second Life, Twitter, Facebook, Blogs (like this one) and Chat rooms are forms of social media networks.
If companies could drool, then most board room tables would be floating. The concept of reaching directly to consumers via Social Media, at little or no cost, is like building a perpetual motion machine -- sounds great but ..
According to one blog that I borrowed from "social media marketing is an engagement with online communities to generate exposure, opportunity and sales." It is new, it is exciting but it is far from being, as the cliche goes, an exact science.
Most forward thinking companies are toying with social media marketing. Soft drink companies do it. Beer companies too. And, even airports are trying their hand at social media marketing. Look what happened at the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) this summer.
Back on the first of June, the GTAA had, as they said in a press release, "a very ‘big’ day for Toronto Pearson." In this case, ‘big’translates to the largest passenger aircraft ever built. June 1st was the day that the 486 passenger, double‐decker A380 aircraft touched down at Toronto Pearson for the first time.
Emirates Airlines own the jetliner and its trip to YYZ (Toronto) signified the first regular scheduled service of the A380 aircraft into Canada and Toronto Pearson was its first Canadian destination.
The GTAA made a big deal of the landing. Not only were regular media outlets invited to cover the landing, the airport authority also reached out to the Social Media as well.
Amongst the throng of journalists witnessing the landing there were 60 members of the Plane Spotting Community (YYZ Airport Watch), inside airport grounds to see the giant jetliner. Plane Spotters are those people who like to camp out as physcially close as possible to an airport's active landing strip . Personal safety be damned, these are fanatics who are most happy when they are covered in exhaust from an incoming 757. Plane spotters write blogs, create websites and use photographs, video tapes and scanners to spread the word about the comings and goings at airports in most cities in the world.
In the old days, transportation authorities thought of plane spotters as "big" airport cockroaches. They built tall fences, dug deep ditches and hung visual barriers near runways to stop the spotters (most of whom are mild mannered middleage working men) from coming out.
It hasn't worked. And, when the GTAA had the "big" jet coming in, they decided to throw in the towel and invite this niche social media group to come in from the cold.
This is what one blogger had to say about the landing: "As silly and ridiculous as it may sound, I delayed a vacation with my INCREDIBLY understanding wife by two days to participate in an airside event to welcome the giant bird for it's maiden landing in Toronto."
"The good folks at YYZ Airport Watch," he continued,"managed to organize and pull off the event that allowed about 60 members of the Airport Watch group to observe the arrival of Emirates EK241, along with about 10 press folks."
What did the GTAA gain? Not much. They were making nice to a group of people who love the airport more than they do -- they spend a big chunk of their free time there -- and are an unpaid last line of security for the GTAA (they, more than anyone could spot fifth columnists trying to breach the perimeter).
The GTAA has a history of doing good things (let's ignore their predatory pricing). A former associate of mine runs the airport's art gallery. IT is tough to see, you really have to be going or coming somewhere to tour it. But, it is producing some of the edgiest and most unique gallery exhibits in the city. As well, the GTAA worked with Caribana this summer and organized the St James Community Steel Orchestra to play in Terminal Two as international visitors came into Canada.
There was an immediate pay-off in terms of the positive things that the social media and the above-ground press said about the GTAA. The downside? By only inviting 60 YYZ Airport Watch spotters inside the fence they have now created two new layers of plane watching social media - those that made it into the airport and the rest of us on the other side of the 10ft tall fence.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

McMichael exhibition closes in one week and then travels to the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland!

STEPHEN WEIR NOTES: The show is now in Switzerland, however, it has left it's footprint on the gallery. A Don Yeomans Totem Pole carved for the exhibition still stands in the McMichael lobby. You can see a George Socka's video of its raising at:

McMichael exhibition closes in one week and then travels to the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland!

Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast will represent Canadian culture to an international audience.

September 10, 2009 Kleinburg, ON
— The McMichael Canadian Art Collection announced today that its special exhibition, Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast, will be on display in Switzerland’s Olympic Museum Lausanne as part of the celebrations for the Vancouver 2010 XXI Olympic Winter Games. The exhibition, organized by the McMichael and guest curated by Ian Thom, will close at the McMichael in one week on September 20th, 2009. Challenging Traditions features over seventy contemporary works of art created by forty of Canada’s most talented First Nations artists living in Canada’s Northwest Coast. The exhibition will travel to the Olympic Museum Lausanne on October 8th, 2009 and remain on display throughout the Winter Games in February, 2010, closing there on April 11th, 2010.
The Olympic Museum Lausanne brings together sport, art and culture. They are the traditional pillars of Olympism, and the Museum gives concrete form to this trinity. The mission of the Olympic Museum is to make visitors aware of the breadth and the importance of the Olympic Movement; to show them by means of images and symbols that Olympism is not merely a matter of sports competition but rather a philosophy of life whose roots are deeply embedded in our history. Bringing First Nations art to the Olympic Museum during the 2010 Winter Games is very much in keeping with the Museum’s and Vancouver Organizing Committee’s commitment to celebrate the best in Canadian and international arts and popular culture. By recognizing the traditions of the First Nations people of Vancouver, British Columbia, they will create a cultural legacy that will endure even after the Olympic Games are over.
“The Challenging Traditions exhibition is so uniquely Canadian and immensely interesting,” said Tom Smart, Executive Director and CEO of the McMichael gallery. “We are proud to be the first institution to organize and host this landmark exhibition and provide our visitors with a unique look at the contemporary art of Northwest Coast artists. And now, we have been given a rare and prestigious opportunity to showcase some of the very best in Canadian contemporary art of the Northwest Coast to an international audience.”
The McMichael exhibition will be part of a larger display entitled Vancouver 2010: Sustainable Development and Living Traditions, which will provide a cultural link with Canada and British Columbia on the occasion of the XXI Olympic Winter Games.
Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast is a landmark exhibition and publication (co-published by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and Douglas & McIntyre) that examines the rich diversity and creativity of art in this region of Canada. The criterion for the selection of work has been based not on anthropological categories, but on innate aesthetic qualities and artistic significance.
The forty artists included in the exhibition have been selected by the guest curator, Ian Thom, the foremost curator and author of historical and contemporary Northwest Coast Canadian art. Each artist has built a substantial and important career. They address, in their own ways, an important visual and cultural tradition in a unique, personal voice. Lastly, and perhaps most controversially, each artist produces work of remarkable depth, beauty and quality. Moreover, the curator has attempted, wherever possible, to select recent, newly created work in direct consultation with the artists themselves.
Each artist has been interviewed by the curator and the selection of the works included was thoroughly discussed with the artist. In some cases, this has resulted in the artist being represented in a way that might not be expected, but is of their choosing. All have welcomed the opportunity to participate in the project and the opportunity to provide input into the selection of included work.
Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast has been financially assisted by the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund, a program of the Government of Ontario through the Ministry of Culture, administered by the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund Corporation. This project has been made possible in part through a contribution from the Museums Assistance Program, Department of Canadian Heritage. The publication and accompanying curatorial research has been generously funded by the Audain Foundation for the Visual Arts.
About the McMichael
The McMichael Canadian Art Collection is an agency of the Government of Ontario and acknowledges the support of the Ministry of Culture. It is the foremost venue in the country showcasing the Group of Seven and their contemporaries. In addition to touring exhibitions, its permanent collection consists of more than 5,500 artworks, including paintings by the Group of Seven and their contemporaries, First Nations and Inuit artists.
The gallery is located on Islington Avenue, north of Major Mackenzie Drive in Kleinburg, and is open daily from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors/students and $30 for families. There is a $5 fee for parking. For more information about the gallery, visit


For further information or to receive high resolution photographs, contact:

Stephen Weir, Publicist
Gallery: 905.893.1121 ext. 2529
Toronto Office: 416.489.5868
Cell: 416.801.3101

Cathy Lepiane, Communications Coordinator
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
905.893.1121 ext. 2210