ArtPrize and the art of PR


There’s no doubt that ArtPrize has been a media phenomenon in more ways than one. It’s been a boon for local business. It certainly has succeeded in stimulating conversations about art. From a public relations point of view, it would be easy to conclude that it has been a triumph given all of the publicity. A search for “ArtPrize" on Google news yields more than 30,000 results.

However, the number of “hits” or press clips is not the full measure of public relations. The PR of ArtPrize is as much art as it is science. And there are some good lessons here.

Take the local coverage first. Many local PR professionals are envious of the fact that ArtPrize doesn’t just get covered; it gets nearly suffocated. It’s a big deal to get featured on the front page of your local daily once. But to be parked on A1 of the Grand Rapids Press every day for weeks is unheard of. When a local TV station like WOOD TV 8 doesn’t just send a reporter and photographer but moves its entire studio to a venue in the art museum for the duration, well, it sometimes seems like the media need ArtPrize more than the other way around.

There’s the first lesson: the media are also businesses. They don’t just cover the news; they package and sell it. There’s no doubt that ArtPrize is a compelling story — there’s lots of money at stake, there is built-in drama and competition, it’s very visual, and thousands of people have demonstrated a passionate interest. Covering it is a no-brainer in terms of news value. But it’s also an opportunity for media to get the same attention as ArtPrize does.

But all the attention can be a problem as well. As ArtPrize PR Director Brian Burch told me the day after the top 10 were announced, at a non-disclosed location just outside ArtPrize boundaries, his challenge is getting out the stories he has to get out. While many PR people have to work hard to get just a little coverage, he has to work overtime to manage the barrage of it and try to make sure his messages are heard in the cacophony. It’s a “good problem,” but a challenge nonetheless.

The national coverage has a similar dynamic. To any PR pro working in the West Michigan market, getting attention from national media can make your year. But what if that coverage is snarky and makes not-so-subtle insults at the region, the event, and its sponsors? Such was the case in the now well-discussed article in GQ. This has happened often when East Coast hacks cover West Michigan events — from the DaVinci horse installed at Meijer Garadens to the Perugino exhibit at GRAM. One wonders if it is worth pitching national media, if the result is going to be such a lack of respect.

Well, a seasoned veteran of all things media would know that just because a reporter takes a negative tone, it doesn’t mean the audience will all fall in line with the same thinking. We have to trust that people are able to think critically and may see the snobbery for what it is and still come away with some good factual information in the article. I’d never go so far as to say “all publicity is good publicity” (something attributed without verification to P.T. Barnum). But I would advise trusting the good judgment of average readers.

Burch, who speaks of GQ writer Matthew Power by his first name, is savvy to this. “My role,” he told me, “is first to get the interview and then to put the story out there. The writer’s interpretation or angle is what it is.”

The pitch to national media (some of which has been done by GVSU PR students working with Burch as a “client” in their GrandPR student-run PR firm) is always to stress that ArtPrize is not just another art fair. It’s about the large prize, the massive community participation and the conversations about art that ensue. Burch was actually happy with the GQ article for the complexity of the event that was captured.

That leads to the final lesson about ArtPrize PR. PR is about so much more than publicity, and that’s the case here. The coverage is happening, but it’s not a PR success just to get coverage. The publicity is a tool for the larger PR goals, which are to communicate the unique value of ArtPrize and to build relationships with artists, sponsors, partners, members and buyers in order to keep the event exciting and help it become self-sustaining in years ahead. All the publicity and buzz are the brush strokes.

The true art of PR is seeing the big picture.

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