How to work with journalists

Catherine Braithwaite, Issue 26, p44-47, Summer 2004
Catherine Braithwaite, a media relations expert, explains how to work with journalists to get your exhibitions and events into the news
Good museums try hard to keep in the public eye. Working with journalists to secure good, regular media exposure is invaluable for museums. As well as raising your organisation's profile, appearing in the press, on radio and on television can lead to an increased number of visitors to your museum's exhibitions and events.

Mounting a media campaign can be time-consuming and frustrating. But with a little planning, creativity and persistence, getting regular media coverage need not be an impossible task, even for a busy museum professional who is juggling the role of press officer with many other jobs.

Your media campaign should consist of five key steps: planning and research; thinking creatively; communicating your exhibition or event; developing appropriate media contacts; and evaluating the results. A sixth step, working with other museums to share information and devise joint campaigns, will create a valuable support network.

Planning and research

Forward planning is at the heart of any campaign, so before you plunge into writing and sending a press release, take a step back and think about what you want to achieve and what you have to offer.

This is not as difficult as it sounds: consider the unique selling points of your exhibition or event, as well as the key messages you wish to convey. Develop a list of concise points and think how they might interest a particular journalist and their readers or viewers. Take time to find out about the different media as this will help you tailor your press releases. Remember that you are more likely to get coverage if your story is relevant to the media you are targeting.

Do your planning with colleagues, especially those responsible for the museum's public programme, to get ideas and angles and to agree key messages. Make sure they understand the importance of your deadlines. If possible, meet as soon as an exhibition or events programme has been confirmed. This will give you time to plan, develop and carry out a media campaign.

Setting your objectives with colleagues at this stage - defining what you would like to achieve and what you think is possible - will help you manage your colleagues' expectations of the amount and type of media coverage you can obtain. What you can achieve will vary from exhibition to exhibition. The level of coverage will depend on an event's relevance to the target media, journalists' and editors' perceptions of its newsworthiness and what else is competing for space in the media at the same time.

Planning helps you get the timing right, and distributing information about your museum's programme at exactly the right moment is essential. Send a press release out too early and a journalist may lose or forget about it; too late and they will not have enough time to cover the story. 'Lead time' is the amount of time the media needs information in order to prepare a story for publication or broadcast.

A good place to start is sending out your museum's advance programme every year to maximise opportunities for your exhibitions to be covered by the media (the end of year is a good time). You can update the information and send it every few months. Arrange your press list in order of lead time, as this will allow you to send information when your contacts working on different publications, television channels and radio stations need it.

Explore national and regional events calendars and ask specialist magazines to send you their advance features lists. Then compare these with your museum's programme and take advantage of any matches by sending information to the appropriate journalists.
It is a good idea to allocate time every month to plan when you will draft and sign off press releases, when to send them out and when to follow them up. You should also build in time to answer enquiries from journalists and to send images out on request.

What makes a story?

Several heads are better than one, so brainstorm with your colleagues. They may suggest something less obvious or be able to find a story contained within the exhibition that you have overlooked.

A straightforward preview of the exhibition may be appropriate but there may also be an opportunity to find an angle that would make it a good feature or news story. Human-interest stories, profiles of the people involved with the exhibition, or showing that this is the first, the biggest or the most outstanding example of something, can all help gain coverage.

Think carefully about the visitors you want to attract to your museum and the kind of coverage that would encourage them to attend. Working with colleagues can help you identify issues you need to be aware of, such as an artist not being a good speaker or a particular exhibit being controversial. At this stage, check whether members of staff are prepared to be interviewed or not.

Using words and images

Every press release you write should have a clear structure to make it easy for journalists to scan and understand. The first paragraph should give the 'who, what, why, where and when' of the story and grab the reader's attention/

When drafting a press release:

- Keep paragraphs short and the layout simple
- Make sure the language is simple, factual, but lively
- Avoid jargon
- Tailor it to your target media
- Title your release clearly 'press release' at the top of the page
- Include your contact details and background information on the museum at the end of the press release, as 'notes to editors'
- Keep the length to one side of A4, or two at the most.

Museums are fortunate because they have potentially great images to offer the media, so take advantage of this by giving editors plenty of pictures or a photo opportunity. Think about images in advance and choose pictures that are representative of the exhibition and photogenic. Have a good selection ready to offer as soon as your first release goes out.

Following up

It is vital to follow up your press release with a telephone call. This gives you an opportunity to pitch a proposal about your exhibition in more detail and (gently) persuade a journalist to cover it. Before calling, note down a few key points as a prompt and have your press release in front of you. State clearly who you are and make it clear what you are pitching in the first 20 seconds of the conversation.

First ask whether it is a convenient time to talk; the journalist may be working to a short deadline. If they say it is not a good time, arrange to call back. If the journalist says it is convenient, be brief, but continue by offering them something extra such as a preview of the exhibition, interesting interviewees or photo opportunities.

Photocalls work well, particularly for the local media. If you can offer an exclusive interview or photo opportunity to a newspaper with a large readership or to a popular television programme you can get fantastic results. I once gave an exclusive to the BBC children's television programme Blue Peter, knowing that the Manchester Art Gallery would attract more visitors as a result. I would not have got Blue Peter to cover it without an exclusive.

Do not keep ringing a journalist or editor; they can identify a good story and only need to be reminded about your exhibition. If the journalist you call is not the person you should be speaking to, get the right name and call them instead.

Keep detailed notes of every conversation and do not be put off if the journalist is brusque as they get many enquiries every day. As you build up your contacts with individual journalists you will find a number of them who will be pleased to be offered stories.

Sometimes the media will call you first, so be prepared. Always reply to journalists if they leave a message and be prompt with further information and picture requests. The media work to tight deadlines and journalists will appreciate museums that supply them on time with what they need.

Having a supply of press packs at your museum's front desk and briefing front-of-house staff to offer them to journalists who turn up without warning can be a real boon if you are not there.

Developing contacts

When distributing a release or calling a journalist, make sure you are reaching the most appropriate person by compiling a press list. Build up your contacts by making notes of who covers arts, museums or leisure at the appropriate daily and weekly newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations. You should also send press releases to the forward planning departments of broadcast media and to press agencies.

While it is possible to address your information to 'the editor', you are much more likely to get a response if you send the press release to a named journalist. You can always call a publication to get the names and contact details of who covers what, or use their website to find out. Nothing annoys reporters more than getting calls for something they do not cover.

Always confirm that your list is up-to-date before you start your follow-up calls. Every time you meet or speak to a journalist, make a note of their contact details and their interests. This means you can call them with confidence next time you have an exhibition or event that will interest them.

In addition to newspapers, TV and radio, there are other places for you to place your story, such as special interest and local websites, newsletters and student, business and professional publications. There will also be some freelance writers based in your area. These can be curators and artists who can offer you an entry to specialist publications.


It is vital to monitor and evaluate each of your campaigns, having put time and effort into your media relations work. It is the one area of marketing where there are tangible results in the form of broadcast and print coverage that you can collect and show your colleagues, stakeholders and funders. Displaying positive features and reviews in your venue can also work as an endorsement for visitors.

Recording the amount of coverage achieved in column inches may seem a useful place to start but it is more important to check that your key messages are included in reviews and features as well as the correct details in listings and previews. Coverage is only valuable if it accurately represents your museum.

Keeping a record of coverage by the media also helps you to plan future campaigns. You can see which journalist has written about your museum and then cultivate a good working relationship with them. It also helps you to identify gaps and focus on new areas of the media for your next campaign. When you conduct market research, ask visitors where they found out about the museum, including tick-boxes on different media to help you evaluate the effectiveness of any campaign.

Joining forces

Collaborative work with other museums in your area or region can be extremely beneficial. Regular meetings can help find new contacts and share experiences. Even the most seasoned museum press officer needs fresh ideas. Also, meeting to share knowledge and experience can bolster your confidence, especially if you are largely working on your own.

Meeting other press officers is invaluable for exploring the possibility of joint press trips for journalists. Museums and galleries in the north west of England have met regularly since the early 1990s to network and share opportunities such as offering a visit to more than one exhibition to London-based journalists in the national media who are travelling to the region.

Many benefits can be gained by improving how you work with the media. They range from increasing the profile of your museum to attracting more visitors. It will increase your understanding of your museum and mean that you forge closer working relationships with colleagues. As you understand the media better you will get to know (and even like) journalists. Use your contacts, planning skills and creativity - and reap the rewards.

Lead times

Newspapers and magazines
- weekend newspaper supplements: three to four months
- national newspapers (dailies and weekends): three to six weeks
- national newspapers (news pages): one week
- weekend listings, including previews in listings: four weeks
- consumer and lifestyle magazines (monthly): four to six months
- specialist (monthly) magazines: four months.

- national television (full-length programme): six to 12 months
- national television (magazine programme): three to six weeks
- national television (news): one to two weeks
- local television (magazine programme): three to six weeks
- local television (news): one to two weeks.

- radio (specialist shows): two months
- radio (news): two weeks