Friday, 28 November 2014

Dream Big 2014: DIY Public Relations

Western Riverina Arts' communication officer Jason Richardson shared his experiences in public relations at Dream Big in 2014. Watch the video to hear his presentation and read more below.

Communications is a broad subject, today will focus mostly on public relations and a bit on marketing.

I have around 20 years experience in writing about the arts. My first articles were published in BMA Magazine in 1994, including reviews and interviews with my friends' bands.

One thing I like about my work promoting the arts in the Western Riverina is that it's a lot like the work I did for BMA. I speak with people about their enthusiasms and I think a key part of doing this is by conveying this enthusiasm.

PR is often disparaged, people think it's manipulative. I'm going to argue it's important for artists as much as anyone promoting their work or event.

Obviously it's a great tool for marketing but good PR changes perceptions. For artists, writers and anyone in a creative pursuit this is valuable.

The feedback I get from helping people see their story in the media is that they get a great response from family, friends and colleagues as a result.

This is great because it makes your creative pursuits more valuable. You're no longer nurturing a dream, you're living it. Recognition in the media is recognition that your investment in something you enjoy is valuable.

And as media organisations cut budgets for journalism, PR becomes a key part of producing news content.

It's estimated there are as many people working in public relations as journalists. Many media outlets run PR material as content.

A study in 2010 found around half of the content in newspapers was driven by PR, from 42% in Sydney Morning Herald to 70% in The Daily Telegraph.

In my view public relations is the skill of making media want to tell your story. There are many ways to do this and today I'll offer a few ideas on how to create a compelling narrative.

Storytelling is fundamental to this pursuit.

There's an apocryphal story that the popular author Stephen King knows what will excite audiences, what will make their hearts beat, because he keeps the heart of a child in a jar in the top drawer of his writing desk.

If this wasn't just a story, I'd guess that many journalists would keep a turd in the top drawer of their desk because anytime they're presented with a story idea one of the first questions they'd ask themselves is "do I give a shit?"

In fact, earlier this year I heard an editor who handles content for a few of Australia's leading youth media websites talk about rating stories on a "give-a-shit-o-meter".

There's no simple answer to give your story this element, which is also known as sticky-ness. Sorry, I realise that's not a great image at this point.

One method that's been good for me when I want to figure out what the key element of a story should be is to talk about it with a friend or write down dots points. Simple but both of these techniques change your relationship to facts as you start to arrange them to form a narrative.

Science shows that vocalising and writing activates different parts of the brain, so you're actually creating new connections in your brain.

Another is a form of market research, ask a friend or colleague what they think is distinctive in your work. You might be surprised at the perspectives.

Most people are resistant to categorisation but being able to quickly articulate your brand is key to communicating your work. When I was promoting local musicians it was essential to have three or four words that described their material.

And, or course, a simple shortcut to convey this character is comparison but I will say more about influences in a minute.

First, some encouragement.

You mightn't realise it but being a regional artist offers you a major advantage when promoting your work. Local media love stories about local people. They really do give a shit.

And, when you've had a story about your work, you can be pleasantly surprised by who else cares too.

When the media show an interest in your work, it legitmises it.

The challenge is to give them your information to journalists and editors in a way that they can see a story in it.

A media release is a good way to present information to the media and has become standard practice for good reason. It takes the format of a news story, presenting facts in an objective format and gives you some control over how these are presented.

A media release should convey five types of facts, which all start with the letter W: who, what, where, when and why.

If you've read a news story then you'd be familiar with the inverted pyramid model, which presents the key facts that support the story in the opening sentences. This would include the who, what, where and when. For example, Jason Richardson will lead a workshop at the library on Saturday.

You can see these facts, while important, are only a small part of a story.

It's the why aspect that follows is what I think provides the opportunity to share your shit.

Outlining previous successes will make your art seem important. If critics have said nice things or other artists have talked about you as inspiration, then that can be good material.

It's critical that you make it interesting because it's the chance to motivate people, but it's also a great spot to educate an audience about your work.

Discussing influences is a good subject because it provides context for your art. It doesn't need to feel like airing dirty laundry, it's about informing the audience. Share your inspiration. It can inspire others but it can also interest them in learning how you've responded.

I think it's a shame more artists don't acknowledge their influences and inspirations. There's an idea that one can "steal like an artist" but it baffles me that in almost every academic pursuit one is expected to reference the ideas and work that has informed a project, except in art.

Every superhero has an origin story that explains their superpowers and pursuit. It's no different if you want to create a compelling narrative.

Another feature of stories is a setback that offers and unexpected opportunity to enrich the hero. I'd argue that acknowledging your own narrative can benefit from sharing these lessons.

There are other angles and it can be surprising what gains traction.

One instructive experience for me was talking with an ABC Radio National producer last year about Western Riverina Arts' Reimagining the Murrumbidgee exhibition. We'd collected a group of innovative artists to create works responding to the River, which I thought would be of interest because of the uniqueness of the concept. The producer suggested it would be more interesting to her audience as a topic for talkback radio if we asked for people to share their experiences at rivers.

I was surprised because it looked for how to make the subject accessible rather than focusing on the material.

This lesson was one I applied recently when helping Leeton-based writer Melanie Ifield to reach an audience in Canberra. Mel has a book set in our national capital and I suggested we open a piece on her work by saying how misunderstood the city is because of the politicians with which it is most associated. It helped to make her story relevant to the audience.

Another lesson I learned through promoting Mel's books was timing. She'd published three books in 2013 and I thought this was newsworthy in itself. However the local newspaper sat on the story for more than a month and I realised it lacked a use-by date. The books weren't being launched, so there was no urgency for the editor to publish it.

Usually the time between sending a story to a local paper and being published varies between one to three weeks, so ensure you allow time.

And, if you can, include a good photograph as an image makes your story stand out on the page. They like a shot with the subject looking at the camera, and this makes sense as it engages a viewer.

If you can't write, don't be afraid to call and speak to a journalist directly but it helps to have your key points written down in front of you to help ensure you stay on topic.

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