Arts & Culture: The PR road show

Working with touring exhibitions offers rich and varied opportunities.

Working with touring exhibitions offers rich and varied opportunities.

"Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" returns to the US next month after a 26-year hiatus, and the outreach around the biggest museum exhibit in history is already fit for a king.

The marketing effort will bring together the exhibit's multiple sponsors, as well as the cultural institutions in each of the host markets, during the 27-month tour. In addition, the visitors' bureaus in each location are planning their own campaigns to draw tourists.

PR pros who work on traveling exhibits note that this sort of city-by-city, integrated approach is key to promoting the collection in each market.

Even though these campaigns might be national in scope, PR tactics are implemented primarily at the local level. Otherwise, by the time the tour hits its later stops, reporters struggle to find original angles.

"The challenge [for] each venue is to make it their own," says Jennifer Schommer, PR manager for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

On the first anniversary of 9/11, the Smithsonian opened a commemorative exhibit at the National Museum of American History. On the second anniversary, it brought "Bearing Witness to History" to seven more US cities.

For that exhibit, Schommer encouraged each local museum to promote examples of how its own community worked together in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

At the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, WA, for instance, local firefighters and police officers staffed the exhibit and shared their perspectives of the historic day, notes Dan Branley, SVP at Dave Syferd & Partners, the agency representing the museum.

"On opening night ... two fire trucks hoisted a massive American flag outside the entrance, creating a fantastic photo opportunity and capturing the attention of people driving through downtown Tacoma," he says.

And while local tactics helped personalize the exhibit for visitors, the Smithsonian's reputation helped convince some reporters that the exhibit was "major," he adds.

"[The exhibit's producers] can be an extremely valuable resource by sharing tips on what's worked and what hasn't in other markets," Branley says, adding that they can also bring "notoriety and credibility" to a collection.

Schommer also notes that the Smithsonian's reputation is often a hook for the media. And she says that she encourages the museums in each community to try to secure their own national coverage by adding a personal touch. For example, when a traveling exhibit on first ladies reached the Big Apple, media relations focused on stories involving New Yorkers Jackie Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt, she notes.

Catering to demographics

Steven Schwadron, managing supervisor in Fleishman-Hillard's Miami office, also stresses the importance of knowing the demographics of each community and being able to pitch unique story ideas to different media outlets.

In the South Florida market, Schwadron says, he found ways to target key audiences, such as Hispanics, Jews, retirees, and the gay community, for two recent exhibits handled by the agency.

"It's really working way, way beyond the art editors and the calendar editors," he says. "You want to pitch vertically; you don't want everyone writing about the same thing."

For Clear Channel Exhibitions' "Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes," Schwadron notes that local archdioceses were naturals to promote the collection.

But for the Jewish press, he secured interviews with Jerzy Kluger, the Jewish childhood friend of Pope John Paul II, who sparked the exhibit.

"You really want to create different story angles that might not be on the radar," he says.

Schwadron used similar tactics to promote "Diana, A Celebration," an exhibit produced by Arts & Exhibitions International.

For fashion reporters, he arranged interviews with Elizabeth Emanuel, who designed Princess Diana's wedding dress, as well as with Jacques Azagury, who designed many of the late royal's evening gowns.

Story angles for the gay press, meanwhile, focused on Princess Diana's AIDS awareness efforts.

And Schwadron also solicited statistics from the visitors' bureau to pitch stories on how blockbuster art exhibits impact tourism.

"There were endless angles, and strategizing and planning were key," he says.

For the in-house staff at host museums, a traveling collection can be used to attract new audiences, as well as to invite former guests back.

The Detroit Science Center is currently hosting Clear Channel's "Monster Trucks: An Xtreme Exhibit," which is being cross-promoted with another Clear Channel event, the monster-truck show.

Kelly Fulford, director of PR and marketing, notes that her team is working with Michigan-based monster-truck drivers to introduce monster-truck fans to the science center - and ideally to other collections on display there.

While host museums can use traveling exhibits to promote themselves, corporate sponsors sometimes create such an exhibit to support a new campaign. But the same rules apply.

Transitions Optical this year partnered with the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh to launch the "Eye Didn't Know That" exhibit, which will tour 13 venues in the US and Canada.

Tom Dowling, MD of Burson-Marsteller's Pittsburgh office, notes that consumer education was a key part of promoting Transitions' photochromic lenses, which adjust from clear to sunglasses in changing light conditions.

Because most sun damage occurs early in life, the exhibit became a vehicle to educate middle school children and their parents about the lenses.

Having Carnegie's reputation and credibility behind the project has been "very instrumental," says Dowling.

"We needed to talk to each of the cities and ask them whether they would be interested in the exhibit," he says. "And it was not a slam dunk."

As the campaign travels from Tampa to Detroit, where sun exposure has a different meaning, the agency is working with eye doctors in each community to deliver a localized message.

In addition, the firm relied on the in-house staffs at each museum to compile media lists because they have the most familiarity with local reporters and their preferences, notes Jonathan Zaback, manager of Burson's New York media practice.

"We also made it clear to the museum that they could put [forth] their own brands," he adds.

When Termidor launched its "Towering Termite Tour" in zoos and science centers across the country, FCF Schmidt PR also recognized the need for local outreach.

Research ahead of the campaign revealed the types of housing in each community, as well as the estimated time of year that termite season hits.

"We knew without hesitation what the issues were," said SAE Kat McAndrew. "It was what allowed us to replicate success in every market."

Abby Urofsky, an AE at the agency, notes that local pest-control specialists were invited to give media interviews. Entomologists play a key role in developing Termidor's insecticides, so promoting the science behind them seemed natural to the company.

"Termites have very interesting, cool biology - and people haven't heard about them that much," McAndrew says about the decision to create the exhibit. "On the other hand, we have really important consumer awareness [information] to bring."

Choosing the right location

When the client is hoping to boost sales, it's important to choose cities that fit the target audience for the product.

In St. Louis, Artmart, an art supply store, sponsors an annual contest for high school students, whose work is then displayed in museums and other venues in nearby cities.

"We specifically pick exhibit locations that will draw attention to Artmart," says Kristin Saunders, an account coordinator at Standing Partnership, which represents the company. "A lot of the people visiting those exhibits are already interested in art or are artists themselves. [Artmart] is a phenomenal place where you can buy really high-quality supplies - and people are going to notice that."

She notes that the campaign typically includes a community relations component, such as holding art classes at local community centers in each market. "It's really important that we give back to each community," Saunders says.

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A week in the life

For Kat McAndrew, SAE at FCF Schmidt PR, being on the ground was critical to promoting Termidor's "Towering Termite Tour."

Not all PR pros tour alongside traveling exhibits. Sometimes firms rely on the host museum's resources or leverage the resources of regional offices.

But McAndrew last year visited almost all of the tour's 21 cities, often staying on the road for four-week stretches. In each city, she had only a small window - about one week - to secure media attention. "As much as you try to build your media list, you're an outsider," she says.

A typical week leading up to the exhibit would involve two days of watching the news, figuring out what were the competing stories. Midweek, McAndrew would personally visit newsrooms, hand-delivering candy boxes that made the sound of termites eating. Thursday night featured a preview of the exhibit, which would be open to the public over the weekend.

"I basically lived the life of carnival personnel," McAndrew jokes. "It was a good lesson in multitasking because even if I was in Houston, I was already thinking about New Orleans."

All stops won't be a media relations success, she notes, recalling that in Jacksonville, FL, the tour launched the same week as a high-profile kidnapping.

"There are times when you have to know that you're not the biggest story. There were weekends that were great, weekends that we were rained out, and some when there were other games in town," she says.

But she doesn't regret her experience. "Moving from city to city allows you to reach so many more people."

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