Too many talented arts executives - whose organizations have achieved a great deal under their leadership - fail to promote their organizations successfully because they do not know how to speak to reporters. The difference between a large story and a small one, a positive article and a bland or even negative one, an on-going relationship with a journalist or a one-off story can often be traced to the way the manager responds to a journalist. Since important, large, positive stories in publications can play a pivotal role in establishing strong institutional identity (which typically leads directly to ticket sales and fund-raising success) learning how to interact with journalists is crucial.
A few important rules:
1. Know what you want to say before every interview: It is important to be proactive when speaking with journalists rather than simply answering their questions. If you know the topic of the interview (and you should always ask beforehand), then you have time to prepare an outline of the concepts and facts you wish to convey.
2. Be specific: Articles are much more interesting and far more likely to be of some length if you can cite a series of specific facts, experiences, plans, etc. that will capture the interest of the journalist and the readers. If one only speaks in bland generalities the article is not likely to be very impressive.
3. Read the journalist: Working with a journalist is, in part, a courting process. We are trying to impress the journalist that we know what we are doing, that our organization is successful and that our story is important. We need to know what interests and excites journalists - we do that by listening carefully when they speak and presenting our story in a way that is likely to impress them. All journalists are different and our story must be tailored to their particular interests and prejudices.
4. Tell the truth: Ideally we are forming a long-term relationship with a journalist. And all relationships are based on trust. Suggesting the next opera or play is going to be extraordinary when we know it is going to be routine or suggesting our financial health is strong when we know that we are facing major cash flow problems is not the way to build a trusting relationship. Of course we will always shade things to make them seem as positive as we can and we do not want to air our dirty linen in public; but we also do not want important journalists to mistrust us.
5. Practice: Practice may not make perfect but it does teach us what works and what doesn't. We need to find our own personal interview style that works for us and our organizations. Doing many interviews, analyzing the results, and working to improve our skills do pay off in the long run.
The arts managers who can create excitement with their press corps are the ones whose institutions will likely continue to build strong and consistent visibility and fiscal health.