Public Relations and the Arts

Posted By: Dr John Jewell

In 2012, Rozalia Jovanovich wrote in the Washington Observer that: now more than ever, PR controls access (or at least tries to) in the art world—when journalists know things, how we know things, whether or not we get to know things in the first place.

Then just last month Sarah Kent wrote of art galleries in the UK: box office returns are of paramount importance, so to ensure a good press, galleries micro-manage media response. At press views, the curator will often take a hoard of hacks on a tour of the exhibition and tell them what to write – they traipse off to file obsequious reports scarcely having glanced at the show, and everyone is happy.

Generally speaking, there are two ways of seeing modern PR and its relationship with culture. One may view it in benign terms as ‘advocacy communication’ which is the necessary process of planning a programme of action to engage with public opinion leading to the ‘understanding and acceptance’  of a particular product. Then there is the view, common amongst many journalists and defenders of the integrity of the arts, that PR has a corrosive and malign influence. Writing in 2003 journalist and commentator, Bryan Appleyard, stated: ‘It is a disease, a virus that has infected all show business, celebrity and sport reporting. It is now threatening to infect all journalism and, in the name of truth, it has to be stopped

The influence of PR on news journalism has long been the subject of debate. In 2008 Cardiff University’s School of Journalism found that that the content of domestic news stories in our quality media was heavily dependent on ‘pre-packaged news’ and in 2011 a nameless News International employee told the Daily Mail that under the stewardship of Rebekah Brooks the Sun and The News of the World was in thrall to the PR industry. He said: Scores, if not hundreds, of front-page stories were written by the PR men. They would think up a headline and story and The Sun and News of the World would run it, word for word. Some of them were complete fiction. Meanwhile, proper stories by proper journalists were buried deep inside the paper.’

As Roy Greenslade records, in his 2008 book Flat Earth News journalist Nick Davies detailed that the UK government had 1,500 press officers, issued 20,000 press releases a year, and spent millions on PR firms. The foreign office alone spends £600m a year on “public diplomacy”.

Whatever your views on the effects of PR on culture no-one can dispute its ubiquity. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations states reasons that every company, large or small, depends on successful PR for its existence and ability to flourish in a fragile economic climate. Effective PR can be, say the CIPR, ‘a company’s biggest asset – the thing that makes you stand out from the crowd and gives you a competitive edge. Effective PR can help manage reputation by communicating and building good relationships with all organisation stakeholders. In terms of the arts then, how does PR work and what effect has it had on culture? The first thing to understand is that the relationship between arts journalists and a press officer (PO) is in reality mutually beneficial. Despite the occasional reciprocated antipathy, both parties are aware of their symbiotic connection. One cannot survive without the other.

On a basic level a PO will be responsible for sending press releases to journalists, inviting them to screenings or first nights and generally enlightening them to any activity that their client maybe involved in. Don’t underestimate how useful this can be to a time pressed journalist struggling with deadlines and a lack of resources. The steady influx of readymade stories fit for publishing can undoubtedly be a boon as well as a hindrance. As Communications professional Amanda Guisband has pointed out, PO’s ‘provide insight, quotes and access to spokespeople’   that would otherwise be unavailable.

This is a key point. Where else would an arts correspondent get interview access to a leading actor, a trip to a film set, or information on a project yet to reach pre – production? The PR company strictly controls that access. Let us not imagine that this is an entirely new development either. Those who hark back the golden age of stage and screen when the elite would appear on ‘Parkinson’ should realize that even then guests appeared on the show because they had something to promote and were booked through agents. They did not simply turn up and perform through a sense of good will.

A PO’s role is far more complicated and multifaceted in today’s digital landscape. Mastering social media is the key to success. According to Michael Cherenson of Success Communications Group, social media is Public Relations and ‘every public relations professional must become an active participant, native to various social media platforms.’ The days of critical reviews meaning the difference between success and failure are gradually drawing to an end. The emergence of blogging, twitter, Tumblr and other forums means that, according to  Siobhan Waterhouse, freelance arts publicist, Mr. Fahrenheit PR: arts publicists are starting to realise that rather than desperately crossing your fingers for a good review in the daily newspaper, reviews are now about creating dialogue, offering diverse standpoints, highlighting perspectives and giving people another reason to want to come to the theatre, performance or gig. Reviewing will never die out, it’s just evolving.’

Added to this, the emergence of twitter and Facebook has meant that reviewers and critics can be bypassed altogether as celebrities use them to promote and communicate directly to audiences. Social media is perfect for this sort of advertising and many ‘stars’ engage social media managers to connect through a multitude of platforms all at once. So tweets, status changes and information about forthcoming events can be regularly imparted without recourse to traditional media channels.

It’s no wonder then that arts correspondents may feel so threatened and irritated by in the influence of PR. Journalists complain of PR ‘flacks’ (the derogatory name given to Press Officers) for their failure to appreciate deadlines, endless and repetitive press releases, sense of ownership of their clients and telling journalists how to write. An anonymous poster on  wrote: ‘What makes PR flacks think they want their input? Journalists definitely don’t want to hear, “I would write it this way . . . ”’ Mostly, though, journalists and PR people work together. Mallory Jean Tenore of the Poynter Institute has written about how journalists can manage press releases as a starting point to their own investigations. It is they who can determine what to do with the copy, they who can check the facts of the release and add the journalistic flair and realism to what maybe pure puffery. She states: when necessary, add analysis and context that will help advance the information in the release. Chances are, if you do these things, you’ll be happier with the end result.

This is the way forward for arts journalism, surely. It is pointless to continually decry PR as the ‘dark arts’- it’s not going to go away. Universities run BA degrees in Journalism and Public Relations combined and figures suggest that PR professionals outnumber traditional journalists by 4:1 Ironic as it may be, this fact may actually strengthen the position of the correspondent. As PR guru Marc Cowlin has indicated: in this competitive environment attracting the attention of a journalist is harder than ever; if you aren’t employing new tactics in targeting and engaging journalists in your media relations you may as well stop altogether.

These are perilous times for the arts generally – In June the Guardian  reported that more than four-fifths of English subsidised arts companies could lose their funding completely as a result of arts council cuts. This would decimate a number of arts organisations across the country and leave artistic and economically viable enterprises at the mercy of the market. Sally O’Neill, interim director of the Royal Opera house has made a heartfelt call to for interested parties to lobby their local MP Perhaps the time is right then, for PR to join with arts journalism in a united front against killing the golden goose.

There is quality arts journalism out there – the problem is that it often occurs as a reaction to news about the arts rather than arts events themselves. Consider Hana Riaz’s excellent piece on Dasha Zhukova, sitting on a chair resembling a semi-nude bondaged black woman – the debate has been about, quite rightly, whether pop culture, art and fashion are not only riddled with racism, but dependent on it.

It is not all doom and gloom, though. There is the Observer’s Anthony Burgess prize for arts journalism Sky arts 1 and 2, the highly readable Sunday Times culture section and the Culture Professionals Network in the Guardian online  But in today’s fractured media world where conventional newspapers and the terrestrial broadcasters have limited time and space to focus on anything other than virtually identical reviews of the same highly publicised vehicles, arts journalism must utilise and promote through blogs, websites etc.

To be fair this is already the case and the voices of Appleyard, Waldemar Januszcazac, Terence Blacker, Robert McCrum, Lynda Gardner and Sarah Kent are nationally heard. In these times of austerity where everything has its price and culture is indeed commodified we should celebrate arts journalism and explore new the new horizons. We need commentators and critics to cut the through the marketing and provide evaluation and elucidation. In the words of McCrum: the arts journalist is the correspondent from that alternative front line. Where some writers are herbivores or carnivores, hedgehogs or foxes, the arts journalist is an omnivore. In the English tradition, the great omnivores, from Dickens and Shaw to Peter Ackroyd and Will Self, have the kind of appetite for culture, in all its uplifting variety, that seems to push the world of the imagination to the limit and then some. 

A shorter version of this blog appeared in the Conversation .