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.