Press release writing tips for art exhibitions: Back to basics I (2013)

R.J. Preece (ADP)
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 27 December 2013
This article was previously published on the International Sculpture Center’s members-only web special blog in July/August 2013.

Press release writing tips: Back to basics I

When it comes to the media/communications for an art exhibition, the press release is the starting point: an essential document that informs media contacts of the position of the aligned interests in the show. The document has a pre-set standard form that must be adhered to, to achieve its goal— journalistic consumption— and the more of it is usually desired.

In artland, artists and organizers without media/communications training— and press release writing training— can run into all sorts of problems with this professional task. This becomes very clear as early as towards the end of a BFA study, and the skill/ knowledge gap can continue throughout their career if not properly addressed. And they probably won’t be informed of the problems from their media contacts— that’s not their job.

Those fortunate to be on an artland magic carpet ride can bypass the details of this professional task by attracting the attention and investment of resourced galleries, art organizations, etc.— at least temporarily. But at some point the need— or cost— may have to be faced. And even if outsourced, the artist or organizer is best advised to at least be able to effectively manage the process of the completion of the press release document to professional standard, to meet strategic goals, and to minimise cost.

The following are some tips, starting points, to raise awareness:

[1] Understand the overall form.
The general industry standard is a 400-word, four-paragraph document. Don’t assume anything that you see in artland calling itself a “press release” adheres to the standard form. For simplicity purposes, go to proven models in the Tate Modern and Brooklyn Museum of Art press release archives. Notice the difference between a solo exhibition release and a group show. For a general comparative across industries, check out PRnewswire online and stick with major company press releases.

For solos, start with the last paragraph first as it’s the easiest: listing out previous exhibitions, awards, etc. Generally speaking, if studying, avoid mentioning “MFA show” or tying it to an academic study, because school is school and can be categorized as such as opposed to ‘in the profession’ which is usually the journalistic focus. However, in this context, here’s an argument for two releases— one targeting school media and maybe into local media, and another focused on other media including those focused on contemporary art production.

And a few don’ts: don’t think any training in academic essay writing is useful in writing a press release— it’s a very specific genre. It’s a copyright-free text encouraging reproduction in part or full (so certainly don’t state anyone is the ‘author’— that’s for an artist statement, an academic essay, etc. and you unintentionally will red flag yourself as unknowledgeable about media texts). If anything stated here is mysterious, you are best advised to look online for press release writing guides, or buy a book on the topic, or don’t release anything until minimally prepared.

I’d plan in 10-20 hours of self-learning for a first release, modeled on a first year media/comm workshop to majors I’ve taught, and pull in any advice of people with proven experience that you can gather. At universities, the university PR office is usually the place with the proven experience in press release writing and contact while media/communications department staff skills can vary, and sometimes exclusively focus on academic research. Also for students, art and art history faculty may/may not be knowledgeable about the form of a press release or media contact issues as the focus tends to be [art production,] academic research and university teaching, not media processes.

[2] Understand the micro-structure
Generally speaking, the way to do this is to raise your awareness of the elements to competently and confidently construct a press release. Usually the first paragraph is a journalistic introduction; the second and third paragraphs offer details of artworks or approach, etc. and a quote or two is offered.

To raise critical awareness, I advise finding three press releases that more or less fit the task. Then go through and write down all of the questions that needed to be asked to draft the press release—who, what, where, when, maybe why, and maybe how. You’ll then raise your awareness about how much detailed information is in a professional press release. It’s also always good to specify in some way how many works are on view and their media—sculpture, painting, etc. After analyzing 2-3 professional releases, the micro-structure and the detailed content will reveal itself.

Then an essential step is to go back and consider the four paragraphs with the awareness that a press release text (or a journalistic news report) is an entirely different structure than an academic essay. For example, in the academic essay, the last paragraph is usually essential— cut that out and the text doesn’t make sense. But the press release is a journalistic text, and people working in fast-paced print media can quickly cut off a paragraph from the bottom (now reduced to 3 paragraphs), maybe another (now 2), and maybe to just one. It’s like a pyramid, if you cut from the bottom, the pyramid still stands, that is, when the text is really designed as a “press release”. The same applies to a news report in a newspaper, or when the genre is used in a magazine, for announcements, etc.

So to raise awareness, take your three sample releases and cut from the bottom. You need to design your release in the same structure. (To see the press release sentences and paragraphs in use, search a couple of sentences of a release for a popular show on the internet. You should see instances of press release statements transformed into… “news”.)

Next, the same modularism applies to some extent for sentences within the paragraphs. Each sentence adds more information, and can sometimes get cut cleanly. So you’ll begin to see that the academic essay writing model is not applicable here.

Then pay very close attention to the first sentence of the first paragraph, the rest of the first paragraph, and the first sentence of the second paragraph. Imagine that’s all you were sending— and think of your competition— and try to keep it simple. Be critical— does this sound interesting and encourage the reader to continue reading? Can it be more interesting based on the work? (Here’s where the advanced issue of the role of media/comm in relation to art production and the project rises, where communications can advise in the initial planning stages, on project design and even artwork to achieve the overall defined project goals. In artland, this can be contentious; in media/comm across sectors, it’s well-established.)

However, noting the standard, when one clearly understands it, then one learns how to break the rules, just like in good art production. For example, after the four paragraphs, one can offer additional information on a copyright-free basis, which writers/editors can pull from. But get the first 400 words wrong and add more text as a strategy for completeness and you may be looking at a press release disaster.

[3] Understand the press release’s purpose
The purpose of the release is to essentially bypass editors and get into editorial copy as ‘news’ through newsworthiness and underlying argumentation. However, a press release also is a communications tool to inform media contacts about an event and to build name recognition. So think not just one show but a media/ comm plan over time. Lastly, the release also is a basis with facts for reviewers or feature article writers.

[4] Get the facts right
In all cases of journalistic consumption, it is essential to get your facts right. In media relations, organizations build trust with media contacts in this regard. If facts are wrong— either in the release or in later media contact— the source can quickly be considered untrustworthy or incompetent, and a practical result can be simply running with the announcement of something else, among hundreds of possible information suppliers, that also are seeking free publicity.

While of course messing with the media can be entertaining, it ends up being very highschoolish. Why? Because while it may be stylish in a discussion in an art history / contemporary art classroom, it shows a complete lack of knowledge of media studies 101, or professional practice. Fake announcements/ statements can on occasion enter editorial copy to show the thinness of the process, everyone with a base level of experience knows this, and it’s been done before. And once one has proven themselves to not be up to a professional standard, generally speaking as in anything else, media contact doors can get slammed shut and the negative reputation can travel.

Also, press releases are subjected to media law— copyright, libel, etc. which needs to be taken into account.

[5] Image and copyright
The standard in the media contact sphere in artland is to offer at least one image of an artwork that will be on view, with a full, professional caption with correct information. More images on offer is better, but any images offered need to have copyright cleared on your end as you are offering them for free usage. This includes usage clearance via any photographer you may be working with, and you should have this agreement in writing on file. Industry standard practice is that the images that you offer regarding the announcement/review/feature of the show are offered at no reproduction cost. So when you send them without mentioning any cost, that’s assumed. If in any way not the case, you need to inform your media contact up front when sending the images to ensure good relations.

A couple of additions on this: first, when competing with information suppliers, this is the standard and the expectation. So if costs are put forth, you are, in this regard, giving your competition a competitive advantage. If presented in the middle or after a journalistic text process, you can very seriously damage your reputation as a trusted supplier in the media/communications process. Also, if you start bringing in contact with a photographer with your media contact, you are complicating the process with your internal project processes versus being the standard: a one-stop contact point.

[6] Make sure to offer contact details and be available
Obviously one must be practical, but you need to know that again, competition can be fierce and when the practicals get too time-consuming and go below the line of standard, professional procedure, people sometimes need to opt for other choices. So, generally speaking, be available to your media contacts, check out the previous "Top 10 media/comm tips for artists" to learn more— and good luck!

This article is general in nature and any legal issues need to be addressed with your legal advisor.