Interview: Nancy Donner

VP for communications and external affairs, The New School

VP for communications and external affairs, The New School

Donner spoke to PRWeek about its relationship with Bravo's Project Runway, how the show has affected Parsons The New School for Design and the fashion industry, and whether or not the Parsons communications team is a fan of the show.

Q: Have there been any tangible, anecdotal, or general benefits that Parsons has received due to Tim Gunn's participation in Project Runway (applications, media requests, or mentions in stories)? If so, please elucidate. Generally, how would you describe Parsons' exposure on the program? Has this year had more impact than previous ones?

A: While the fashion industry has always known Parsons as a leader in design education, Project Runway has been a terrific boon to the school in terms of building name recognition among a wider cross-section of the general public, including prospective students and the media. And through exploration of our Web site by inquisitive Project Runway visitors, it has brought attention to our many other design disciplines, such as interior design, fashion marketing, architecture, communication design and technology, and more.

More specifically, in terms of enrollment, while fashion has steadily grown over the past five to six years, since the start of Project Runway the numbers have been remarkable. The total number of inquiries to apply to Parsons The New School for Design has grown by an additional 20,000 per year; the number of undergraduate fashion majors has grown from 380 in 2003 to 503 in 2006; and — anecdotally — our pre-enrollment summer intensive fashion program filled up within a few hours of applications being available online.

With respect to the media, while Parsons and more specifically Tim Gunn have always had strong contacts with the fashion media, the number of press requests from general consumer media and news outlets in other parts of the country has grown significantly with the popularity of the program.

Q: Do you think that Project Runway's success has made more people aware of fashion? Or, do you think the show has just proven that people are interested in fashion, even if they're not in the industry?


A:
We like to refer to this as the "chicken-or-egg" question—the explosive growth and popularity of fashion in today's youth and pop culture has fed the success of Project Runway, while Project Runway has fed into this phenomenon, creating a boomerang effect. What's great is that viewers are not just interested in the finished product, but how it got that way. It takes skill and artistry and craftsmanship to make beautiful clothes. On Project Runway, that is condensed down to a challenge that lasts a day or two. At design schools like Parsons, you learn the things that allow you to take on these challenges and compete in the real world.

Q: Was the University at all involved in the Project Runway's decision to work with Mr. Gunn? Does the University work with him on any Project Runway-related efforts? How about Tim Gunn's profile after the show? Is he requested more through the Parsons' PR dept. now?


A: Project Runway came to The New School through Tim in his role as chair of the fashion design program — they were looking for a venue for their challenges and a consultant to the show (it originally was supposed to be off-air, but his rapport with contestants and natural talent on camera led to his becoming part of the on-air talent).

The communications and external affairs department at The New School has worked closely with the show's producers and publicists on a number of fronts. The first and probably most important thing we did at the university was to create new signage for the front of the Parsons fashion building and the sewing workroom where the show is shot. Every time the cameras flash on the school's name they reinforce the idea that if you're interested in learning about fashion, you should think about Parsons The New School for Design.

On the PR front, we have worked with the public relations team at NBC Universal (which owns and oversees Bravo productions) to provide background on Parsons and Tim for their website and press materials. While NBC Universal takes the lead on Project Runway public relations activities, we work with them on related requests that come through our office. Tim's profile has grown enormously since the start of the show. He's become quite the media favorite, and why not? He's very good at what he does, both as a show host and as chair of our fashion department. This is a win-win for Project Runway and Parsons.

The number of requests for interviews and appearances has increased exponentially and they come from a wider array of media. It's no longer just fashion press. It's The Washington Post and it's Entertainment Weekly. It's Tim on the red carpet at the Oscars and on ESPN for Game Day.

In addition, we've capitalized on the PR exposure by creating adjacent advertising. We produced two brief television commercials and a web advertising banner specific to Project Runway. These have contributed enormously to the number of inquiries we get about the school.

Q: Does any/everyone in the PR department watch the show? Do you feel current students are excited about Parsons having such a high placement?


A: Are you kidding? We all watch it. We like to say that it's [for] work, but we all know that this is one of the guilty pleasures we have here. And from what we hear anecdotally, many students, particularly in the fashion department, are excited as well.

Q: Has the PR dept. launched any new campaign related to the show (or has the department become more active as a result of the success of the show)?

A: Yes. As stated above, for the first time we have invested in a television ad campaign. These two spots—one that links Tim Gunn and fashion to the rest of Parsons design offerings, and one that links Parsons to New School President Bob Kerrey and the rest of the university's eight schools—air in select markets nationally. These, combined with a web presence on the Bravo site, has boosted inquires by both the press and the public in Parsons The New School for Design.

Q: Are the ads that show on Project Runway unpaid - a deal for Gunn's participation?


A: No, we paid for those placements with the television markets that run them.

Q: Do you think this gives fashion PR people a chance to more broadly pitch their clients to nontraditional outlets, due to the success of Project Runway?


A: It is clear that many news media—from general consumer outlets across the country, to business, education, and even technology press—are expanding their fashion coverage. I would say that as long as PR professionals are able to find an angle that addresses the interests of the news outlets, there are certainly more opportunities for press coverage in non-traditional outlets.

What I love is how the media are helping us link fashion to education, fashion to marketing, and fashion to business. And, since Parsons' fashion program teaches the business of design as well as the art of design, this is a great connection. Students are not only exploring our onsite program in the Village, but also our online program in fashion marketing.

Q: How is the fashion PR major doing at Parsons?


A: Never better. In fact, we are in the early stages of establishing a graduate program in fashion, thanks to a gift from our alumna Donna Karan. And, as stated above, we are building the online fashion marketing program.

Nancy Donner is VP for communications and external affairs, The New School

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