Ben Luke

Courting the press

Ben Luke, 24.10.2016
Ben Luke, the art critic at the Evening Standard, reveals how cultural institutions can establish effective relationships with the media
Having started my career as a press officer at the Tate and moved on to become a journalist, I have viewed the interface between cultural organisations and journalists from both sides.

Over those 20 years, evenly divided between PR and writing, I can categorically say that our interactions are generally positive. Museums and cultural institutions are, after all, generally viewed as being good things. They consistently provide the media with fascinating material, with that all-important quality, visual power.

In my experience, too, most press officers in the arts are passionate, informed and clearly work hard for relatively little financial reward. But it is useful, still, to outline some dos and don’ts.

The most important point is to understand the publication or media platform you are engaging with: get to know its structure, how regularly it is published or shown, and how far ahead it makes plans.

Be clear what particular journalists tend to cover: don’t offer stories that will clearly work for an arts correspondent to an art critic. Even the briefest Google of a writer’s most recent articles should reflect the scope of their brief.

Also, have an idea of which section you want your show or event to feature in. At the same time, don’t force an idea or an angle onto us or try to steer our coverage too precisely. We want to know where the exhibition or event is and when, what’s in it and, importantly, why it’s happening. What makes this newsworthy?

But don’t over-promise: few works of art, for instance, are genuinely “iconic”, yet that word now meaninglessly appears amid almost every press release. Draw our attention to the highlights, but don’t falsify their significance.

We also need to know where we stand in terms of when we can publish: embargoes on reviews and reports are increasingly common, but some who impose them don’t seem to know why they are there. But if they are in place, tell us straight away, not after we have planned our coverage or seen exhibitions or events.

In many ways, cultural organisations have a tougher job than ever to get our attention. In an article in The Art Newspaper on London’s changing commercial art scene in June, we reported that the number of commercial galleries in London alone has increased from around 50 to close to 150 in the last 25 years.

Many of those galleries have exhibition spaces which match or surpass those of many museums, more money to throw at promoting their programmes and leaner operations that allow them to act faster.

As journalists, we are bombarded with paper and digital releases, invitations and catalogues from an enormous number of institutions, public and private. Timing is crucial in this crowded field: if you can plan shows or hold events that avoid the big-hitters like the Tate, the National Gallery and the Royal Academy, then you stand a better chance.

But you can make yourself heard. Museums and cultural organisations quite literally provide great colour for our pages and screens: with creativity, you can make sure it reaches us.

Ben Luke, the art critic at the Evening Standard, will be speaking on this topic at the Museums Association's one-day seminar On Message: Effective Strategies for Marketing and PR, which will take place on December 6 at the Royal College of Surgeons, London