Thursday 18 June 2009

Snakes on a Pane (of glass) - Museums, Galleries, Events and Festivals go trolling for media

Trying to Get Attention While Toronto's Media Industry Is Busy Running Away And Hiding

It is hard to get pre-event media coverage for just about anything these days. And given the state of the economy it is not hard to figure out why.

Newspapers have few inches to spare for puff-pieces on new shows at the galleries, updates on festivals and launches of websites. Look whats going on. The Globe and Mail writers' guild is set to go on strike in ten days, the Post is shutting down its Monday edition and the Star and Sun have had their share of job cuts too. In TV land Global owners, CanWest, is technically bankrupt. CTV is so broke its asking its viewers to help lobby the CRTC for an increase in cable fees. The CBC is in the process of shedding programmes and employees both on TV and radio.

So, with that in mind what is a publicist to do to get the attention of the media? You pimp up your media event!

In the old days, one could usually get a few reporters, camera crews and radio guys to come out to a launch provided there was some meagre attempt to put on a show - and - tell. Tools of the trade were pretty basic - a golden shovel for the sod turnings, a giant pair of scissors for the ribbon cutting and of course, the giant cheque for the funding presentation.

Nowadays no one in the media - not even an ad rep looking for business - would take time to show up at a giant cheque ceremony. They want sizzle, and if you are a publicist, you had better deliver! Don't even think of simply having a speaker at a podium and expect the media to show up en mass.

Over the past two weeks I have been involved in the planning of three different events - a festival funding announcement (Scotiabank Caribana), the opening of an art exhibition for Northwest Coast Contemporary First Nations (McMichael Canadian Art Collection) and a juried show of the work of Black Canadian Artists (ROM). As well I have to attend the launch for Nuit Blanche and followed the launches for Luminato and for a Library and Archives Canada Internet announcement.

One of my events has already taken place (see next blog entry below) - an announcement of Federal Government funding for Scotiabank Caribana. The Feds, worried that there could be an election call this week, wanted Caribana to immediately announce that it was receiving funding support.

The Festival usually gets $100,000 a year from the Federal Government to help run North America's largest outdoor event. This year, the Feds increased the funding to $416,000. With that sort of money the Festival was only too happy to put on an instant press conference.

Ex-Broadcaster Peter Kent, a Minister of State for the Conservative Party, came to a Friday morning press conference at the Harbour Castle Hotel along Toronto's waterfront. No giant cheque at this event, instead, the Minister, the head of Tourism Toronto, a Scotiabank VP and Joe Halstead, the head of Caribana, were surrounded by beautiful Mas Dancers bedecked in skimpy Caribana costumes. It was a well attended event and no one questioned why the girls were there.

Yesterday I attended the launch of the Ontario Science Centre's summer exhibition of Lizards and Snakes: Alive with Toronto photographer David Tollington. The week-day media launch had everything an assignment desk would want - a compelling news story, good speakers, and great visuals (school children gingerly touching snakes, museum people feeding small animals to hungry boas and a menacing looking 4 metre long Burmese Python).

The show itself has 50 live lizards and snakes from four different continents. It runs all summer long and if the Science Centre's clippings are as good as the media turn-out, it should be a very successful exhibition.

The launch of Nuit Blanche didn't have snakes or skin. Instead the breakfast launch depended on a central location (The Art Gallery of Ontario) and a cavalcade of well known artists, business leaders and politicians to announce the line-up for this annual one-day art festival. The press conference was jammed, reporters working in three different languages (English, French and Mandarin) listened as Mayor David Miller outlined what would be happening this fall in the all-night citywide art happening.

Although the media event was a success, the actual coverage that Nuit Blanche received was much smaller than what it received at its pre-recession 2008 media launch.

And finally, there was the Library and Archives Canada's Wednesday media conference to celebrate world-first online launch of the complete Historical Canadian Censuses, 1851-1916. It appears to have been talking heads and computer screens - no dancing girls, blue tongued skinks or art gallery curators (they did have Mayor Miller though) to attract the media.

Who won the prize for holding the best press conference over the past two weeks? If the award is based on attendance, Nuit Blanc won easily. In terms of ink and broadcast minutes ... both Scotiabank Caribana and the Ontario Science Centre did better than expected. And the big loser? The Library and Archives Canada -- it is hard to make the launch of a website newsworthy, sexy or even memorable.

Cut line: Green Emerald Tree Boas, kids and the snake handler all part of the draw of a June media event to announce the new exhibition Lizards
at the Ontario Science Centre. All three photographs taken by Dave Tollington.

Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast. June 27- September 20, 2009.
Lizards & Snakes: ALIVE!June 17 - September 7, 2009,
Scotiabank Caribana. July 14 - August 3.