Top 10 media/communications tips for artists, Part II (2012)

R.J. Preece (ADP)
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 18 October 2012
This article was previously published in Sculpture (Insider) in September 2012.

Top 10 media/communications tips for artists, Part II

Click to see Top 10 media/communications tips for artists, Part I

Tip #6: Follow this simple rule: “Nothing is really ‘off the record’”. People sometimes learn from their mistakes and I certainly did after a journalist was in my living room— during a social gathering— and my off the record quote ended up in a newspaper with a big circulation. I was completely arrogant, “Oh yes I know how media works because I have consumed so much of it.” Yeah, right, and we all know that anyone who looks at art can make artworks competently too.

After I freaked out, my wise, older colleague said, “Listen, don’t worry. It’s really not that bad, and no one is really going to see it.” This was pre-Internet, and if today, could be on the first results page of a Google search of my name. “Usually people start to take media seriously after they’ve been burned,” he advised, then smiled. “You got off quite easily. It really could have been much worse!”

And he was completely right. So, if you feel you want something off the record, then just don’t say it. Practice not answering certain questions. Instead, you are best advised to utilize a creative range of diversion tactics. Better yet, skip to Tip #8 right now.

Tip #7: Journalists and editors are people too. If your communication is all about “You, you, you,” then sorry, my communication will be all about “Me, me, me”!

My advice: if you aren’t doing so already, show a real interest in a publication or writer, do a little homework, and find a sincere commonality. It’s polite, professional and can be mutually beneficial.

Tip #8: INTERVENTION TIME— Dear Artist, with love, you need to get some media training. Really anyone interacting with the media ends up going this route, but usually it’s those in government, corporations, and celebrity brands that are funded to do so. And yes, I’m convinced some of our more high-profile artist-colleagues have had media training, because in media/comm land this is standard and it makes business sense. But of course art world etiquette would dictate denial. Why? Well, you know how it is, why wouldn’t they deny one of their competitive advantages?

At the very least, after 50 interviews— including those by writers trained in journalism, trial and error, and access to conversations with press officers, maybe even strategists, a great deal can be learned. In fact, I think that’s how Marc Quinn has developed his skills, but he’s also brilliant.

Mega-interviewed even by tough London newspaper journos (great training), I walked into Marc’s studio. He asked, “How many words?” “2500”. “A Q&A, right?” “Yes.” And he delivered exactly 2550 and the answers rolled off his tongue. He knew the messages he wanted to deliver, at times he spoke very precisely— he nailed it, and appeared natural— and gave just enough for me to complete the job. He didn’t adopt an academic discourse framework and offer 5000 words of speech, resulting in me pulling excerpts of my choice. It was my easiest interview write-up ever— interestingly presented, journalistic and not academic, without a lot of journalistic wiggle room. From a media/comm perspective, Marc, very well done!

But also, when people speak, they are sometimes loose with their facts, or they exaggerate, or they go on and on, or they say things they may regret later. Media training trains people to focus on exactly what they are saying, exactly what they want to say in media form, as if they can imagine their speech transformed into print, and to do so comfortably. As a starting point, you can practice audio-recording your speech— usually everyone is surprised at what they have said at times when relaxed.

Further, try using words like “always”, “often”, “sometimes” when talking about general characteristics of your work, and “this includes” to frame things. Also, a statement— or text— about art is never complete. So get comfortable with that, deliver the goods, and then let the art speak for itself!

For media, practice getting a description of your artwork down to only two or three sentences. Two is better. Then you can add another sentence to add more clarity. Then another. Look at art reviews for group shows, and the artwork descriptions. Now, if you want to just outsource this and let writers do what they do, that’s fine. But you may not like the result— and then you may need to implement a “damage control” strategy for an uncomfortably long time.

Now, for some really good practice, you can role-play being poachers (in other words, journalists: easy ones; those a little challenging; and difficult ones, which I call “London newspaper journos, and their knives are out”) and gamekeepers (in other words, media/comm or artists). A great classic book with exercises is Jim McNamara’s How to handle the media; just change the topics to art ones. I’ve led this with first-year media/comm students, and the London journo role-plays can be good fun, and a strong consciousness-raising experience.

Tip #9: You can’t control the media, and you really shouldn’t want to. Imagine that the politician or celebrity that you loathe demanded to review the copy before publication by a journalist, the journalist gave it and the interviewee demanded changes for them to look good— according to their own ideas, the journalist didn’t tell the readers, and it was published for your consumption. What would you think?

Whenever you engage with the media, you engage with people who sometimes get it right, sometimes don’t, sometimes are trained in journalism and fact-checking, sometimes not, sometimes know a great deal about certain kinds of art and not so much, and may have a different interpretation. And their social, professional, and personal contexts can vary.

So on the artist and media/comm side, it requires some delicate balancing. In the end, if there is an important fact published incorrectly, you should definitely make contact and request a fact correction. But check with an objective colleague first— are you nitpicking and this is a media experience issue for you? (Alternatively, “virgin journos” can drive editors nuts.) Also, politely alert the journalist if there is an error in any press cutting you are sending to them, because if you don’t, the error can get repeated. I mean, you sent it out with no note, didn’t you? Of course, for anything on the libel front you should quickly seek professional advice from a specialist lawyer (and yes you should know the basics of libel law too).

Overall, this is why I tape all interview contacts, with prior permission of course. For me, it’s about getting what the artist said right. I’ve heard some art journos rely on “journalist notes” which can frankly be a bit laughable because, well, how many artwriters have had journalism training, not to mention traditional journalists occasionally caught out on this as a defense. In over 300 published pieces on artists, two have contacted me after publication boldly saying I made an error. I replied, “Okay, tell me exactly what the error is— and I’ll go get the tape.” “You have a tape?” “Uh, yes, don’t you remember?” And I took the tape out both times, and to their surprise, they had said it. After being embarrassed and apologizing, I advised they just try to get some media training. Crossing fingers here, but it highlights the importance of mentally focusing on getting the presentation of information exactly as you intend. Plus no writer will ever know the full range of statements an artist has made that might be particularly sensitive to the artist.

Now speaking about audio-recording for accuracy, I once pulled out my recorder at the beginning of an interview of an administrator of a Sri Lankan art collection. I went to his office to just get some basic information about what they did, but maybe they also got burned by a journo. “And we’ve got our recorder here too”, he announced theatrically, taking it out of his drawer and placing it on his desk with a smile!

I found this funny, fantastic, and fair game. I mean, if journos can sometimes catch out artists, then shouldn’t artists have equal opportunity? (The art critics associations may hate me for mentioning this…)

Tip #10: Don’t stress out. It’s like foundation year and just takes getting used to. You already learned the elements, and the principles of design. You learned what the rules are, and then how to break the rules. Then it was practice, and since, innovations.

The same applies to media contact. It’s really like playing tennis; it can be a lot of fun hitting the ball back and forth, and there’s a lot of media space to creatively hit amazing shots that people will notice. Plus there are so many interesting media angles to communicate art to new audiences.

But perhaps most importantly, you’ll know more about how to play the game. And if you ever unexpectedly have to face those harsh and bright media lights, you’ll be better prepared, more confident— and more competent— because you know more about the fine art of media/communications.

Click to see Top 10 media/communications tips for artists, Part I.

R.J. Preece is a Contributing Editor of Sculpture, among a range of other initiatives across journalism and media/communications. At university, he studied art history, design history, journalism and media/communications— and his research has focused on art and design sector communications and varied journalistic processing. His views do not necessarily represent the views of Sculpture magazine.