"Wellesley and Matelli hit a grand slam": A media coverage evaluation (2014)

PR researcher/practitioner Les Roka bravely assesses the full-on media coverage of Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker sculpture at Wellesley College (2014), which resulted in 5000+ articles and 800 TV broadcasts in 96+ countries. He offers us in the arts community a starting point to begin to understand its creative entrepreneurship value, and potential, for artists and art organizations that witness similar results, or aspire to.

sleepwalker wellesley tony matelli
Tony Matelli. Sleepwalker (2014). Installed at Wellesley College (2014). Overall: 70 in. x 48 in. x 26 in. Courtesy of Tony Matelli and Marlborough Chelsea. Photo: J. Kennard.

I was asked to offer as assessment of the media coverage of Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker at Wellesley College, and I was supplied an earlier version of the developing data in the artdesigncafe compilation (ca. 16 March 2014). I was also asked to offer a readily comprehensible assessment, with wording accessible to an arts audience unfamiliar with the ins and outs of journalism and media coverage evaluation.

Please note, this is a tough challenge. I’m as knee-deep in my discourse as many arts people are in theirs. My core academic/practitioner background includes journalism, public relations and media history/criticism. Adding to this, almost everything mentioned below is up for academic debate, as vociferous as anything I can imagine in the arts. So, for the occasional PR/journalism academic that stumbles on this article, please do see the endnotes page.

For everyone else, below is my abbreviated, best guesstimate.

The scope
I chose to look closely at the following media markets: Ohio, where I grew up and earned my PhD; Utah, where I’ve lived and worked for 14 years; New York, because it’s the American media capital and one would expect the widest discussion across media types; Boston, because the media event was located and fueled there. Lastly, I chose Los Angeles and San Francisco because I wanted to sort of compare these two West Coast cities with their East Coast counterparts.

I also looked at the US national compilation, as this is a media coverage layer on top of all of these markets.

Tonality: negative/positive on a scale
Cutting to the core, overall, Wellesley and Matelli hit a grand slam. On the superficial surface, yes, some phrasing is not ideal. But that’s the price one pays to interest the media and public at this level. In the end, people will remember an interesting sculpture that prompted a public, open debate. It also helps to keep the Wellesley College name on the radar as an interesting school.

When one looks closely at the compilation, sees the headlines, and goes into the articles, the controversy inspired all sorts of narratives: it’s creepy, it’s bizarre, it’s unconventional, it’s fantastic. Someone even created a Twitter account for Sleepwalker. It raises issues of appropriateness. It may signify a kind of sub-cultural, generational divide, and maybe an academic divide. And so forth.

The media coverage value
First, please note that addressing this question is a can of worms that has for years resulted in many articles and books about numbers and methodology. It’s like answering the question, “Who is the leading artist of our time? And which artist will be in the future, looking back at our time?”

Having said this, one needs to put something out there to give an indication. It also can be a starting point; in PR circles, hopefully it will attract attention for a healthy discussion. So, here is my best guesstimate, as simply the matter of “raising visibility” for the parties mentioned in the media coverage is not very helpful at all really.

Overall, I conservatively estimate there were at least 39.2 million media impressions in the six Designated Marketing Areas (DMAs), meaning eyeballs in front of the text or broadcast. (This is for the “first wave” of coverage that occurred in February 2014.) Here, for argument’s sake, I’m assuming that web publication on a TV, newspaper and magazine website is translating into hard copy publication and TV and radio broadcast. This is also based on the practical limitations of the data set. A more thorough and expensive compilation would specify Internet publication and audience— as well as hard copy publication and audience, and TV/radio broadcast and audience. I’ve taken the former and applied the publicly available data of the latter. Again, for argument’s sake.

If the museum were more of a standard national attraction, such as a national history museum or aquarium, 39.2 million media impressions could mean potentially 140,000 additional visits/year. If spending were $20 each, that’s USD$2.8 million from visitors, members or tourists.

Again, you can imagine the debate that can occur in PR circles about this guesstimate. Imagine a group of burlesque show PRs in Las Vegas. The feathers would definitely be flying.

Now, let’s look at the individual markets.

Boston Designated Marketing Area (DMA)
Guesstimate: at least 4.0 million media impressions. In Boston, the 7th largest US media market, there was quite a bit of variety in the story angles— which then went national via distribution channels. I found it intriguing they went into more detail about the controversy and how the college was responding. The coverage was quite balanced with follow-up stories, as opposed to other DMAs that opted for simply the initial oddity or weirdness angle. There was discussion about the artistic value and merit, and there was a response by the artist in the media coverage.

New York City DMA
Guesstimate: at least 12.4 million media impressions. In the New York City DMA, there also was a full discussion, as one would expect, given the established interest base via AP (Associated Press), and the elements of a controversy involving a public sculpture, an elite women’s college, the student response, and New York being the US media capital. (FYI: it’s important to look closely at the “US national level” of the compilation; many of these “national” media outlets are New York-based, as well as Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.)

Ohio DMAs and Utah DMA
Guesstimate: Ohio - at least 5.3 million media impressions; Utah - at least 1.3 million media impressions. These DMAs appear to be highly reliant upon what AP correspondents offered in their coverage, based on the compilation. In addition, in Ohio, there appears to be more usage of the terms “creepy” and “odd” and “realistic”. So it seems to have been treated, overall, more as a novelty, versus the various coverage tones in New York and Boston.

Does this say something about audience sizes in Ohio? Or, those who are interested in certain kinds of coverage defer to national outlets—or those in other places? A worthwhile discussion point.

I particularly like looking at the Salt Lake City DMA. Make it here and your message is tightly projected across the entire state, even spilling over the border. Curiously, the Deseret News ran the headline “’Sleepwalker’ braves the cold at Massachusetts college”. This newspaper is based in Salt Lake City and is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the readership extends through this “channel” internationally (with an impressive top 5700 website traffic-ranking according to Alexa, comparable to the Miami Herald). While the story mentions the sculpture appearing nearly nude, the headline was as vanilla as it could possibly be with this story. This compares to others like “man-in-undies”, “tighty-whities”, and “nearly naked man”.

Los Angeles DMA and San Francisco DMA
Guesstimate: Los Angeles - at least 9.5 million media impressions; San Francisco - at least 6.7 million media impressions. What’s interesting here is that, overall, at first the coverage appears very AP-driven and in some ways, comparable to Ohio and Utah (minus the Deseret News). However, look closely at the US national layer. Here, many pop/celebrity culture websites are based, or centered, in Los Angeles. Then you have major Internet companies headquartered in the San Francisco area that distribute news nationally and internationally in multiple countries. So these two didn’t seem to take on the story to the level of New York and Boston, but this highlights that the national layer must be looked at when examining any of the DMAs.

Lastly, the university-affiliated news coverage across the DMAs was interesting to examine. One example was at the University of San Francisco. The Foghorn (student publication) ran a piece that was as detailed, thoughtful and balanced as any I saw in Boston or New York.

So here you have my best guesstimate. Many artists sometimes make great sacrifices for developing their art. So do some media relations evaluators. Now I’ll go back to my core disciplines, ready to dodge any academic or practitioner arrows that fly my way at any moment…

“Wellesley and Matelli hit a grand slam” - 1 | 2

Click the following link to read more articles in our summer 2014 articles focus: 5000+ articles, 800 TV broadcasts, one cultural event. But how did this happen?: Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker at Wellesley College (2014).