Asia Society converges on cutting edge

New media-savvy team maximizes coverage and reach through various multimedia partnerships

New media-savvy team maximizes coverage and reach through various multimedia partnerships

In Deanna Lee's office at the Asia Society, there's a video camera and a microphone scattered among the papers and other work materials.

Lee, VP of communications, is the head of a four-person department handling PR for the organization, which educates various audiences about Asian issues. Two staff members focus on the traditional communications work associated with the arts and cultural happenings at the society.

Lee and PR associate Alexander Farbstein are tackling new-media outreach. They embody traditional and new-media coming together: She has more than 20 years of broadcast experience, including work with PBS and ABC programming, namely Nightline; while Farbstein majored in Chinese and economics in college. The camera and microphone are part of the technological nerve center of their efforts.

"When I first came here," says Lee, who, like Farbstein, has been with the organization for about a year, "there was a lot of faxing press releases and getting people to attend programs. With new media, a small organization can reach out to just as many people as a large organization."

Founded in 1956 by John Rockefeller III, the society's New York headquarters is on the toniest strip of Park Avenue, and it has 10 other offices across the US and Asia.

"Our strength is also our biggest challenge - our breadth," says Lee. "We're a museum, a think tank, a cultural performance site, a business convener, [and] a commissioner of works. When you're a small nonprofit and you have four people for all of this, how do you cover [it]? How do you meet our goals, which are so broad?"

Outreach, especially to a younger audience, is one of four major objectives of the Asia Society's PR department. The others: to be "truly pan-Asian," which it defines geographically across 30 countries "as far West as Iran, and down to Australia"; to grow the institution; and to develop partnerships.

"That's the only way forward in this world," says Lee.

Among its partners is YouTube, where it appears on the new nonprofit channel. The Asia Society site was the number one most viewed out of all nonprofits for October, thanks in large part to footage of a town-hall meeting the society hosted on the recent protests in Burma. The film was also picked up by Newsweek's Web site.

Another pickup occurred with Time's Web site, which worked with the society to film an interview between the magazine's reporter, David Van Biema, and Thich Nhat Hahn, a Burmese monk who helped lead protests in the 1960s. When Lee first pitched the idea, Time was skeptical. "They thought it would be amateurish," says Lee. But apparently the outlet was pleased with the outcome; it was featured on Time's home page.

"Whether it's new or old media, it's telling the story," says Lee. "If you can't do that, it won't make a difference."

Other partners include Project Syndicate, an association of 330 newspapers in 133 countries; PBS, which works with the society on a syndicated public affairs show, Asian America; and The Washington Post, where it will soon be providing video Op-Eds. A partnership with Al Gore's Current TV and a cultural portal on PBS' Web site are in the works. It also has a presence on Facebook.

"It's not about putting pieces online," says Farbstein. "It's about putting pieces online, and making sure people see it."

When Farbstein and Lee have an event or an exhibit, content and panelist expertise is used in multiple ways. Every morsel of interesting information is used to its maximum.

"Our town meeting looks kind of boring," adds Lee, showing a still frame from the Burma event. "But you don't know that the leader of the monks called in by satellite. It's a constant [provided] with every video: You still have to write to the editors with 'This is what makes this one special.'"

But, "Right now, Asia is hot," says Lee. "If we sit back and don't put ourselves out as the [leader] to come to if you have anything [Asia-related], we've lost it."

Next, they'd like to install a studio in the society's New York building that can send out live feeds. But this may be a hard sell. The higher-ups sometimes question the reasoning behind the PR department's efforts.

"[They ask], 'Why is she wasting her time on a news story that has nothing to do with a program that we're doing here?'" says Lee. "But when people see results, other groups and panelists come to us. It's the results that turn people around."



PRESIDENT: Vishakha Desai


KEY TRADE TITLES: Everything ranging from Time to the South China Morning Post

COMMS BUDGET: Undisclosed

Deanna Lee, VP of communications Alexander Farbstein, PR associate
Elaine Merguerian, PR associate director Jennifer Suh, PR manager

PR AGENCY: All in-house

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